Review: 7Bone Burger Co in Reading

Chin dripping with a big dollop of ketchup, fingers messy with yellow mustard – eating a 7Bone hot dog is not an elegant experience.

But it is a satisfying one.

7Bone Burger Co is the latest restaurant to open its doors in Reading (you’ll find it along St Mary’s Butts), and on Friday Ben & I went along to the preview night to, well, basically stuff our faces. We’d been to the Camberley 7Bone about 2 weeks ago and really enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to returning and trying some more of the menu.

Tip number one for 7Bone is don’t wear anything with a restricted waistband – this is big eating at its best. It’s all the fried/saucy/meaty goodness you could possible want – this isn’t the place you come for a salad (although there is a token one on the menu).

Welcome to Reading 7Bone!

So what makes 7Bone different from every other American style burger joint? Well, in some ways not a huge amount. The main element of the menu is burgers, hot dogs, and fries – team that with one of the American beers and you’re good to go.

But there are a few twists that make 7Bone that bit more interesting. The portswood poutine for example was a meaty puddle of deliciousness – fries, slow braised beef, a ‘deep’ gravy (it had such a hit of meatiness in its flavour, despite being quite thin) and cheese curds.

Ben’s favourite dish – the Portswood Poutine

Then there are the frickles – which we had at Camberley and I wish we’d had again at Reading. Frickles – aka fried pickles – are a super naughty piece of fried goodness. Crispy, crunchy and delicious dipped in the blue cheese sauce. And plentiful in their portion size too.

Instead of frickles we had onion straws on the Reading preview night. Again – total, utter naughty food. There’s basically nothing healthy about a whole basket of Friday onion, but well, it’s Friday night, the beers are flowing, who’s really thinking about the gym?

The burgers and hot dogs are goooood. So good it needs to be said in a long, drawn out way with lots of oooooos. Plenty of sauce, and again, something a bit different on the menu. At Camberley we had the Peter Green (Texan all steak chilli, cheese, American mustard and jalapenos) and One Big Chicken (buttermilk fried chicken, hash brown, cheese, chipotle ketchup, HP sauce and mayo). Both were chock-full of filling, the chicken one especially had such a huge meaty piece of fried chicken in that you couldn’t really eat it without deconstructing it on your plate. And a really good layer of sauces in there too which really pack the flavour in.

At Reading we had two sliders (Ronald’s revenage – double cheese, onions, ketchup, mustard and pickles – and the dreadlock Rasta – chicken burger with hot sauce, shredded iceberg and dirty spread) and a Caravan Park hot dog (pork dog, fried onions, dirty spread, ketchup, mustard and pickles). Again totally stuffed with fillings and really thick tasty patties on the sliders.

All. the. food.

I have no idea what ‘dirty sauce’ and ‘dirty spread’ are actually made of (I’m guessing some kind of mayo/ketchup combo) but I don’t really care –  the whole flavour bundle was delicious. 7Bone has fun with its menu – things like dirty spread are the character it’s creating – a place where you can stuff a burger into your face, make a mess, clink a beer with your companion and carry on. It’s lively, it’s fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Of course, that kind of frivolity isn’t necessarily going to be to everyone’s taste and the person next to us at the preview night was having a proper moan to the manager. The menu was ‘confusing’ (it’s burgers and hot dogs, how confusing can it be?), the frickles were ‘like marmite’ and they were firmly in the hate camp, and ‘what ACTUALLY is in dirty sauce?’. I guess you can’t please everyone… Maybe a rant like that comes with a preview night where you’re asking for opinions, and everyone is quite rightly entitled to be 100% honest, but it was a bit off putting when we just want to chill and enjoy our food.

I got the feeling maybe they just didn’t ‘get’ 7Bone? For us, it was chilled and fun, the kind of place we’ll go before the cinema or just because we fancy popping out for some food on a Friday night. The venues are a bit hipster in decor – neon lights and exposed pipes, you know the drill – but they look cool and they work with the laid back vibe.

The staff were friendly at both locations and our service was quick at both. The beers were good in Camberley (try the Kona Big Wave) and the cocktails were delicious in Reading (the French Bone is a sweet, fruity little number and the Endgame is a thick, fruity, rum-soaked hit).

The French Bone (left) and the Endgame

The prices are reasonable – you’re looking at about £8 for a burger/hot dog/melt and around £4ish for a side – and in the scale of burger restaurants where McDonalds is one end, Five Guys is the middle and the Handmade Burger Co is the other, it sits somewhere between Five Guys and Handmade Burger Co.

Without a doubt we’ll be visiting both venues again. They’re a really welcome addition to Camberley and Reading and there’s absolutely no question that next time we go, frickles will definitely be on our table.

Sunday Brunch at Hotel du Vin in Henley

Hotel du Vin in Henley, for me, is synonymous with the Henley Literary Festival.

Every time I’ve been there, except for my most recent visit, it has been in some way related to the Festival and the hotel has always left a wonderful impression. Whether it’s sipping a glass of crisp Pinot in the courtyard at the launch party, or popping in for a quick cup of tea in between events, it’s always been a place to relax and enjoy.

But for every time I’ve been there while enjoying the festival, I’ve never actually eaten there. (I know, that should really be whispered!).

So when an email landed in my inbox inviting me to try out the Hotel du Vin Sunday Brunch it took me all of five minutes to reply with a ‘yes please!’.

A long, lazy Sunday brunch always feels indulgent – it means you’ve done all the jobs you need to do, and you can really enjoy the time you’ve got stretching ahead for the day. And the relaxed setting of the Hotel du Vin fits that perfectly. With wooden floors, dark wooden furniture, and an eclectic selection of art on the walls, it feels cosy and welcoming. A pool of light also flooded into the room from the courtyard and made us long for warmer weather and al fresco dining.

The Sunday Brunch offer is £24.95 per person for four courses, including the French Market Table, which is a bit of a showstopper – but more on that in a moment!

The first course on the menu was the soup of the day, and when we visited it was cream of cauliflower. The soup was thick but smooth, and creamy, with the fresh taste of the cauliflower really coming through. It was also a really generous sized bowl which definitely set the tone for the portions to come.

Then it was time for the French Market Table – just take a look at this:

Thin slices of delicious iberico ham, prosciuito and salami, fresh mussels, wedges of bread, coarse meaty terrine, olives, balsamic pickled onions, plump tomatoes, cucumber pieces, slices of salmon, a creamy potato salad. The feast went on…

Both Ben and I agreed that we could happily have stayed on the second course, filling our plates again and again, but a little self-restraint, and knowledge of what was to come, kept our greedy sides at bay.

Our waiter – one of several who looked after us impeccably – asked if we wanted a breather and we nodded a yes while trying to fathom how we’d manage more food. The spacing was spot on, allowing us time to relax and chat before our mains arrived.

The main course presents a choice, there is the Sunday roast, or options like Steak Frites and Poached Scottish Salmon. I chose the rib of Aberdeenshire beef Sunday roast and Ben went for the Severn & Wye Smoked Haddock.

The meat was pink, as I had asked for, and beautifully tender, cut into fairly thin slithers so you could really taste the beef. It was served with a rich and meaty gravy and a soft cloud of yorkshire pudding. A full bowl of fresh winter veg was on the side, almost overflowing with roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, broccoli and red cabbage.

Ben’s fish was also fantastic, served with a mustard butter and placed on a hash brown, although the poached egg on top wasn’t runny, which a perfect poached egg should always be.

Pudding – yes there was more – was a comforting banana, rum bread and butter pudding for me, and apple tarte tatin for Ben. They were so good we both refused to share.

The bread and butter pudding was topped with rum and raisin ice cream, which had a faint hint of booze, and worked very well indeed with the banana in the pudding.

While we’re talking sweets, my head was turned a few times during our meal by the sight of a three-tier cake stand being carried through to the bar area. Admittedly any cake would usually turn my head, but this was particularly dazzling due to the puffs of candy floss which were sticking out of the top. It looked fabulous and fun, and will definitely be added to my ‘must-visit’ afternoon tea spots.

After a leisurely two hours we tried to button our coats back up (it was a task!) and headed out into the sunshine for a walk along Henley’s beautiful riverside. Henley is a lovely place to visit, picturesque and calm, and Hotel du Vin couldn’t be a better fit for the town. I will certainly not be leaving it until the next literary festival before I visit again.

I was invited to review the Sunday Brunch menu at Hotel du Vin in Henley so my visit was complimentary but all views are my own honest opinion. 

Review: The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – a Dick Barton Adventure

B Hoodlum (Clive Elkington) and A Hoodlum (Luke Burton) discuss their master plan. Photos by Savannah Photographic

If there is ever a time for all out silliness on stage it is most certainly the festive season.

And we’re not talking pantomime with its slapstick chuckles and ‘he’s behind you’ chants, instead it’s the madcap world of special agent Dick Barton.

The Studio Company has well and truly put its own stamp on Dick Barton, the special agent who was the eponymous hero of a radio series in the late 40s and early 50s, and come up with a lively production, filled with plenty of festive fun.

Dick (Quiller Rees) and Snowy (Gordon Coe) are in a tricky situation while Jock (Adrian Tang) tries to appease Klaus (David Rhodes)

Our heroic trio, Dick (Quiller Rees), Jock (Adrian Tang) and Snowy, played with fantastic expression by Gordon Coe, smell something fishy about a new restaurant and set off to investigate.

The restaurant owner, Klaus Holland, performed with a fantastically silly Nordic accent by David Rhodes, is clearly up to no good, but why does he have so many Christmas puddings and why do Santa (Luke Burton) and his elf (Clive Elkington) appear to be delivering them?

The plot is fun and frivolous and the cast go full throttle, running around the stage and keeping a great energy throughout. The jokes came thick and fast, with few gags eliciting some actual groans from the audience. But while some jokes got a titter from the sold-out crowd, including a few moments of amusing word-play, the laugh-out-loud jokes we would expect from the comedy-detective genre were missing. A few easy innuendo jokes fell flat and perhaps a bolder delivery would gather more giggles.

There were times when the production dipped a toe into the all-out ridiculous – a brief, unexplained arrival in France, a Russel Brand-esque drunk host with more hair than face and an octopus being thrown at someone during a dark chase scene – but it wasn’t consistent. If director David Wembridge was brave enough to tip the scales closer to the surreal there’s potential for a really wacky, hilarious production.

The brilliant ice cream ladies

But despite being held back a little, there is plenty to entertain. An impromptu dance sequence worked wonderfully, two ice-cream ladies made a fantastic cameo, and there was enough Christmas spirit to power Santa’s sleigh.

Although it may not have you belly laughing throughout, Dick Barton’s adventure will certainly bring you plenty of festive cheer.

The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – A Dick Barton Adventure is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 17 December. To book visit www.southhilllpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the production so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: High Society at The Mill at Sonning

four-and-a-half

Bethan Nash is sensational as Tracy Lord. All photos by Craig Sugden
Bethan Nash is sensational as Tracy Lord. All photos by Craig Sugden

Musicals at The Mill have not been a common occurrence in recent years but after High Society it’s likely audiences will be begging the theatre’s programming director for more.

Dripping in glamour and with a sensational score performed as if it were in the West End, The Mill’s revival of High Society is an all-out musical spectacular.

Cole Porter’s 1956 musical, which was based on the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, revolves around the upcoming wedding of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord (Bethan Nash). As the Lord family prepare for the wedding in their glamorous Oyster Bay home, a few unexpected visitors arrive in the form of Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter Haven (Andrew Alexander) and reporters from Spy magazine who have some dirt to dish on Tracy’s father, and are looking to write an expose on her wedding in return for keeping quiet.

As the champagne starts flowing and things get rather out of hand, Tracy has three men vying for her affections and she must decide who it is she truly wants to be with.

Tracy (Bethan Nash) gets ready for her wedding day
Tracy (Bethan Nash) gets ready for her wedding day

It took more than 40 years for Cole Porter’s film to be translated to the stage, and seeing the glitzy spectacle at The Mill it would seem those are 40 years of missed opportunity. The musical is a visual treat with its simple but stylish set, designed by Ryan Laight, allowing the stunning costumes, and band, to take prominence. Costume designer Natalie Titchener has created a wardrobe which oozes glamour with its silks and sparkles, and the cast wear it well, with Tracy floating across the stage, looking every bit the screen siren.

The band are present on stage throughout, split with pianist on a high platform on one side, and multi-instrumentalists on the other and it’s a marvel to see how quickly they switch instruments throughout the show.

Director Joseph Pitcher has chosen to accentuate the glamour of the Lord family at every moment, with bottles and flutes of champagne pretty much a constant prop on stage, but Pitcher doesn’t make us envy the Lords. Instead we are part of their fun, and we get just as carried away with the fabulous party sequence, where the wedding party let their hair down the night before the nuptials.

Uncle Willie (David Delve) let's lose after a few gins too many
Uncle Willie (David Delve) lets loose after a few gins too many

Tracy is no spoilt brat and Nash makes us warm to her as we see her inner struggle between heart and head. Her vocal performance is nothing short of perfect, with a gorgeous tone to each number and she shares a fantastic vintage quality with Andrew Alexander as Dexter, with both harking back to Porter’s 1956 original score.

Casting is superb throughout – David Delve is hilarious as the drunken Uncle Willie, while Kirsty Ingram also brings in plenty of giggles as cheeky little sister Dinah Lord, despite it being a little difficult to place her intended age. Gemma Maclean is glamorous and heartfelt as reporter Liz Imbrie, showcasing a wonderful depth to her character in her number He’s a Right Guy.

The Mill couldn’t have picked a better production for its festive offering and with plenty of glitz, a bucket load of fun (and champagne!) and a love story at its heart, it’s the ideal way to round up the year.

High Society is at The Mill at Sonning until 14 January. To book visit www.millatsonning.com.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Writefest at Progress Theatre

stars

Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. Photos by Martin Noble
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. All photos by Martin Noble.

Progress Theatre is well-known for unearthing top local acting talent but that skill also extends to the hidden gems of the writing world too.

Writefest, which is now in its 11th year, is the theatre’s annual celebration of new writing, and 2016 is a real rainbow of entertainment, with witty comedies sitting neatly next to powerful drama.

Organising the running order of seven original and different short plays is no easy task, let alone sorting the director and crew for each, and wading through all the entries in the first place, but producers Heather Noble and Christine Moran have curated a spectacular evening with seven memorable pieces. Compared by warm host Stuart McCubbin, who peppers the show with funny little poems while set changes take place, Writefest 2016 is a showcase not to be missed.

The Cutting Man by Matthew Wilkie

A man (Biffi Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man
A man (Biffo Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man

An understated and powerful exploration of grief, The Cutting Man, follows a man (Biffo Bear) in a library who has an unusual hobby of cutting words from books. As he whispers to us from the dim-lit room, with the librarian (Paula Montie) just out of earshot, we discover the reason behind his strange obsession. A delicate little piece, The Cutting Man has a careful, and well-thought out pace, gradually unravelling the man’s story, not to shock but to make us understand and sympathise with him. Word play is used cleverly here too with the last line of various books interweaving throughout the story. A strong opener with a captivating performance by Biffo Bear.

Knock Knock by Marie French

Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.
Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.

Why are the English men in the truck? Where are they going? And why are there two Russian girls next door? Knock Knock follows two pairs of friends, Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) and Katya (Nanette Naude) and Etty (Stephanie Gunner) as they travel in the back of a fish lorry on their way to a new life. Given the current political climate it’s almost impossible not to think of Trump, his immigration policies and the terrifying prospect of his wall, as the group hold their breath, waiting to cross the border into an unnamed country. The cramped, frightened atmosphere is created skillfully with the use of sound and light – unseen guards walk around the outside and torches illuminate each side. But where will they end up? It is the unanswered questions which make this an enthralling story.

Water Torture by Michael Sharp

Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.
Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.

It might seem like the perfect backdrop for a comedy – an elderly lady in a flowery top, incarcerated for fighting with her neighbours over a garden statue – but Water Torture is far from a frivolous comedy about life in Middle England. When her neighbours of 35 years buy a water fountain, Beryl (Paula Montie) and her husband are driven mad by the constant water works. But there’s more to it than just a dislike for the sound of running water. With her husband reliving some painful memories, Beryl sets about fixing the situation. Paula Montie is superb in this one hander, letting Beryl drip her story out gradually until it reaches a tidal crescendo. Sharp’s balance of humour, (and there are plenty of laughs to be had), and something much more sinister, is spot on.

Hamlet’s Essence by Eva Marchetti

The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia's early death in Hamlet's Essence.
The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia’s early death in Hamlet’s Essence.

In today’s time-poor society has anyone really got the spare hours to watch a whole Shakespeare play? That’s the question posed by Eva Marchetti in Hamlet’s Essence, where a new avant garde theatre group aims to stage a reduced version of Hamlet. With an Ophelia (Nanette Naude) who is desperate to leave early, and a Hamlet (Jack Gunner) who only really wants to give his To Be or Not To Be speech, it’s a hilarious take on one of the Bard’s most famous works. Director Laura Mills has really run with the silliness of the piece and it works, from Ophelia rolling her eyes and telling Hamlet to hurry up, to the slapstick moments of actors sliding themselves off stage when they’ve been killed. Performed by a cast who seemed to be having as much fun on stage as the audience are from their seats, it’s an insiders joke for those who regularly see or perform Shakespeare, and a fun comedy for those new to the Bard’s, sometimes lengthy, productions.

How Do I love Thee by Liz Carroll

Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on

The stand-out show of this year’s Writefest, How Do I Love Thee, is a gut-wrenching piece of drama, written by Progress Theatre stalwart Liz Carroll, and performed by an exceptional cast. Exploring the dangerous effects of religious dogma, the play tells the story of Kate (Lauren Gilbert), who has been brought up in an extremely religious household. Now at university she has created a new life, but it is one which conflicts with her upbringing . The internal conflict she feels is manifested on stage in the figure of her younger self Katie (Bethan Perkins), and the frightening figure of her father (Paul Gallantry). Gilbert, Perkins and Gallantry are sensational at portraying Kate’s inner fears and demons, while she is watched by her indoctrinated mother (Jane Gibson), Rosie from university (Stephanie Gunner) and her therapist (Patrick Selvanathan). A story of mental illness, vulnerability, indoctrination and ultimately love, How Do I Love Thee is a play you won’t forget in a hurry, and it might just be Carroll’s best piece of writing to date.

Home (A Loan Too) by Jonathan Skinner

Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)
Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)

Any 20 or 30 something trying to get even a toe on the housing ladder should see Home (A Loan Too). A hilarious and accurately depressing piece of social commentary, the play sees Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) and prospective buyer Ruth (Karoina Michalowicz) taking a tour of an apartment. Barry is all about the sale, causing much laughter as he describes the cramped living area as cosy and leans Ruth outside the window so she can see the river ‘glimpse’ rather than view. In a town where house prices are extortionate, like many others across the South East, this little funny vignette will undoubtedly cause a knowing smile for plenty of audience members.

Mixed Reception by Emma Wyverne

A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception
A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception

Ending the programme on a high, Mixed Reception is a witty whirlwind through the television channels. A cookery class, religious sermon, gardening programme, childcare show and the news are all on stage before us, but with a dodgy reception we keep switching from show to show – to hilarious effect. As the childcare host tells us about snow white and the seven… we switch to the news to hear of the…seven Argentinian cocaine smugglers. With fantastic wordplay, Mixed Reception is a thoroughly enjoyable little skit, and for the most part the cast lived up to the challenge of making sure they hit their cues for a seamless broadcast. A lively end to a sensational night of theatre.

The 11th annual Writefest is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading until Saturday, 19 November. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review Writefest so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Chess the Musical by the East Berkshire Operatic Society

threeandahalf

The championship finals in full swing
The championship finals in full swing

The slow, strategic world of chess may seem like an unlikely setting for a musical but the East Berkshire Operatic Society’s (EBOS) latest production shows it is much more than a monochrome backdrop.

With a sizeable cast bursting out songs on the stage and twirling through fantastic dance numbers in unison, this is a world which is full on technicolor.

Set in the Cold War era, Chess, which was written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba with lyrics by Tim Rice, follows an American Grandmaster and his Russian opponent, as they prepare to battle it out in the world chess championships. With a tense political landscape behind them, and a woman who develops a relationship with both, not all thoughts are just on the game at hand.

The arrival of the championships in Bangkok was marked with a dazzling dance sequence
The arrival of the championships in Bangkok was marked with a dazzling dance sequence

EBOS has gone all out with Chess, bringing a huge amount of energy and hard work to the production. The set is eye-catching and effective, with a giant chess board on the floor and black and white pieces dotted around the stage. Screens and projections are used cleverly throughout, bringing a hint of the modern to this ancient game.

The cast set the bar high from the flag waving opening of Merano and retained their lively spirit throughout, dancing and singing their way from one number to the next with barely a breath in between.

Choreographer Sophie Horrox has done a fantastic job, both in the more simple full cast numbers, and a stunning, intricate piece of ballet used to represent one of the chess matches, which was performed enchantingly by Mette Isaksen and Courtney Fleming.

A stunning ballet sequence was used to represent the chess match
A stunning ballet sequence was used to represent the chess match

The final match was also represented by a ingenious human chess game, where each dancer moved in the steps of a chess piece on the board while the match took place behind them. The sheer skill required to make sure each piece moves in turn is admirable and there is a real delight in the parallel of strategy required by a choreographer and a chess champion.

While the plot of Chess feels weak at times, with relationships coming and going far too quickly for example, it is a spectacle to enjoy regardless. Daniel Strong as Anatoly, and Kelly Gates as Florence made a fantastic duo with both giving strong performances throughout. Daniel’s final number in the first act, Anthem, showcased a truly remarkable vocal talent which would be more than at home in the West End.

Kelly Gates as Florence and Danieol Strong as Anatoly
Kelly Gates as Florence and Danieol Strong as Anatoly

Some other solos could do with a bit of fine tuning, although each performed with a commendable passion, and at times it felt a little as if the singers were having to compete with the band in an effort to be heard. A few tweaks to the sound might not go a miss, but it certainly didn’t detract from an enjoyable performance.

Chess might not have a reputation for being the most action-packed past time but an evening with EBOS will certainly keep you entertained.

Chess the Musical is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 5 November. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review Chess so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Dracula at Progress Theatre

two-and-a-half

The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim, Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran
The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim Jonathan Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran

When a story is as well known as Dracula it falls to those in the arts to give new life to the well-trodden tale.

Theatre makers and film directors have sunk their teeth into Bram Stoker’s work almost continually since its release in 1897, creating a huge portfolio of vampire stories which draw on the novel’s themes in many different ways.

Writer and director Dan Clarke continues the trend for different readings with Progress Theatre’s latest production, in which he places the novel’s women front and centre – quite literally from the moment the play opens with flashing lights illuminating a trio of ghastly vampire sisters.

But it is unclear what Clarke’s intention is of bringing Stoker’s female characters to the fore. Is it to cast light on the silent Gothic woman – often reduced to a weak, helpless victim – or to have some fun with the other Gothic woman, the predator?

Only two male actors appear in the piece, Matt Urwin as a pale and insipid Jonathan Harker, and Ian Blecher, who almost veers into a caricature with his Van Helsing. Both are almost inconsequential, much like the weak Gothic woman, acting as a support to the other characters around them.

Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.
Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.

And so it is left to each of the vampire sisters to double up as one of Lucy’s male suitors, but the purpose of it is unclear. This is not a feminist reading, quite clearly shown in the way every woman in the play is reduced, rather depressingly, to nothing more than a product of her sexual desire. Even the conservative Mina (Megan Turnell) falls foul of her insatiable sexual appetite when she immediately turns to Dracula to relieve her carnal desires after finding out her husband is impotent.

Sexuality and vampires have long gone hand in hand, Twilight made an entire franchise out of it, but here it feels gratuitous. The thrill of Dracula is its subtlety, the threat of the sisters sinking their fangs into Harker but not quite getting there, and the slow build up of the Count seeping into normal society.

But there is no subtlety here. A bed literally stands centre stage, with the vampire sisters stripping off their jackets and hats – markers of their male roles – and disappearing behind a curtain to devour their next victim. If there was any doubt in their intention, a saucy wink as they disappear behind it clears it up quickly.

The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy
The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy

Perhaps then it is the predator we are faced with, but there is no depth to it. We have no background story for the sisters, we only see their bloodlust and desire, and it makes for a gory but uninspiring view.

Of course it is nearly Halloween, and the production’s ghostly theatrics are fun for this time of year. The sisters, played by Belinda Duffy, Neve Murray and Rebecca Douglas, have some fantastically freaky nuances, and all create a strong contrast between their bloodthirsty vampires and male suitors.

There are also playful scares when characters appear suddenly, an eerie soundtrack, and bucket loads of blood, but it all feels a bit hammy. Things also veer into the all out ridiculous with a monstrous battle in Dracula’s crypt, but it seems as if it’s all part of the fun by that point.

It may well be confused in its intention, and adds little to the genre, but for a silly Halloween scarefest it fits the bill.

Dracula is at Progress Theatre in The Mount in Reading until Saturday 29 October. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk

I was invited to review Dracula so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

An exhibition of The Queen’s dresses and afternoon tea in Windsor

The main gate at Windsor Castle
The main gate at Windsor Castle

When you live 20 minutes from somewhere it’s easy to forget how awesome it is to the outside world.

Having grown up just down the road from Windsor, and having spent summers working as a receptionist there in university holidays, Windsor has always just been a beautiful place I’m lucky enough to live near by. I used to spend my lunch breaks sitting on one of the wooden benches outside the castle just watching the world go by, not evening thinking about the history and legacy of the castle behind me.

But seeing tourists from all over the world gazing up at its magnificent structure (and taking a few snaps with their selfie sticks!), made me realise what an absolute gem it really is.

Love how all the greenery makes this look a bit fairytale
Love how all the greenery makes this look a bit fairytale

The thing which brought us to Windsor Castle was the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe. Cat had spotted it a while ago when it had been at Buckingham Palace, and we decided to all have a bit of a mother and daughter day out and go along to see it.

Love a mother/daughter day out!
Love a mother/daughter day out!

The entry to the exhibition was included in the entry price for the castle and we paid £20 each for the whole experience, which was well worth it. Just wandering around inside the historic castle is awesome, and it felt so exciting to see inside after walking passed it a hundred times. I think we went in as kids but I barely remembered a thing so the visit was obviously well over due!

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Inside there are gorgeous stone buildings, a stunning dolls’ house, a mesmerising chapel where Henry VIII is laid to rest, some spectacular furnishings and, of course, the dresses.

Although we were all expecting a few more dresses, and some iconic ones like The Queen’s wedding dress which wasn’t there, it was still well worth a visit. Seeing how her the style of The Queen’s dresses have changed was a wonderful snapshot of fashion through the years, from chic 60s dresses with big buttons and A-line skirts, to floating 70s gowns with wide sleeves. There were some absolutely breathtaking evening dresses, as well as some of the tailored two pieces which have become her iconic look in recent years.

This is set into the pavement outside the castle
This is set into the pavement outside the castle

After wandering around the castle for a good two hours, we headed over to The Sir Christopher Wren hotel where we surprised Mum with an afternoon tea.

We all love an afternoon tea (as you might know if you read my post on the Fortnum and Mason afternoon tea), and it always feels like a treat.

An afternoon tea tower is always a delicious sight
An afternoon tea tower is always a delicious sight

Although service was a bit slow – they were getting ready for a wedding but we had to catch the waiters eye to ask for tea top ups – the food was lovely and we worked our way through little sandwiches with fillings including cucumber and creme freche and ham and mustard, two warm scones each with cream and jam and an impressive platter of cakes.

Banana loaf, eclairs, macarons and carrot cake
Banana loaf, eclairs, macarons and carrot cake

The food was hearty and plentiful and luckily the hotel let us take some of the cakes away with us for later.

The whole day was lovely and it was so nice to be able to spend some quality time with Mum and Cat, discovering the magnificent history of Windsor Castle and totally getting dress envy for The Queen.

Review: Blithe Spirit at The Mill at Sonning

fourstars

Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) begins the seance
Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) begins the seance

With a recent UK Theatre Award under its belt for the South East’s most welcoming theatre, The Mill at Sonning, is riding high and its latest production will certainly sustain that momentum.

Noel Coward’s oft-performed comedy Blithe Spirit is a delicious, witty piece of theatre, and The Mill has created a fun, pacey production, with a few nerve jangling surprises to boot.

The play follows socialite Charles Condomine who invites the medium Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) to his house to conduct a seance. Little does she know, it’s all in a bid to research his new book, a novel about a homicidal medium, and his wife Ruth and dinner guests, find much amusement in the mad old medium.

But when the lights start to flicker and the table begins to rise from the floor, something disastrous happens – Charles somehow manages to summon his deceased ex-wive Elvira.

And it turns out ex-wives are just as much of a pest when dead as they are alive.

The superb Finty Williams as the deceased Elvira
The superb Finty Williams as the deceased Elvira

Finty Williams is a sensation as the sassy, mischievous Elvira. Lounging on the sofa like a cat, she pouts and preens, reminding Charles exactly what he’s been missing for the last seven years. Her razor sharp comments about his current wife Ruth (Phillipa Peak) are hilarious and she acts as the perfect antithesis to the (mostly) composed, stylish, and very much alive Ruth.

Her sarcastic attempts at moving vases and ‘behaving like a ghost’ are also very funny, and she has a playful glint in her eye as she begins her games of manipulation on Charles.

Charles (Darrell Brockis) is the only one who can see Elvira, and the word play that ensues is hilarious, as the husband fires insults at his first wife, only for them to be picked up by his second. There are also some great comedic moments from Janine Leigh as nice-but-dim maid Edith, who becomes increasingly spooked by the strange goings on around her.

Hilarious maid Edith (Janine Leigh) serves tea to Charles (Darrell Brockis) and Ruth (Phillipa Peak)
Hilarious maid Edith (Janine Leigh) serves tea to Charles (Darrell Brockis) and Ruth (Phillipa Peak)

Although first seen in the West End in 1941, and performed by countless amateur and professional outfits since then, The Mill manages to add a few of its own flourishes to the piece. Dimmed lighting is used throughout the seance scenes to create an air of nervous excitement, and there are a few staging tricks – some similar to those used in previous productions at The Mill – which are fun and frivolous. Costumer Designer Natalie Titchener has also done a great job at characterising the ghosts, with Elvira’s sunglasses being a particular stroke of genius.

At times the production feels a little safe, Madame Arcati in particular brings us quite a familiar version of the traditional madwoman – all waving arms and murmuring – but it is when The Mill breaks out of its comfort zone, and surprises us with something a bit edgier, that it really stands out.

This is a production which has tried to be playful, and it is all the better for it, but with an extra dose of eccentricity it could easily have its audiences howling with laughter.

Blithe Spirit is at The Mill at Sonning in Sonning until 19 November. To book visit www.millatsonning.com. Tickets include a two-course meal plus tea and coffee.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Frankenstein by Blackeyed Theatre at South Hill Park

stars

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Max Gallager as Henry, Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein and Lara Cowin as Elizabeth

How does a man make a monster?

It is a question which floated into Mary Shelley’s mind in a dream and one which has subsequently plagued directors and film makers who have tried to bring her monster to life.

Staying firmly away from the lightening-bolt cliches of Hollywood – thank goodness – Blackeyed Theatre has created a unique and captivating creature.

Based on the Bunraku figures of Japanese puppet theatre, Blackeyed’s monster is a construction of aluminium framework and foam body parts which puppet maker Yvonne Stone has cleverly crafted into a sinewy monstrosity, which bends at its joints and drops its jaw to howl in fear or ferocity.

Manned by three members of the cast, who jump in and out of the main narrative to manoeuvre him, Frankenstein’s monster is an eerie, ungainly creation, who talks us through his story with his slow drawl, voiced fantastically by Louis Labovitch. While Frankenstein himself dominates the first half of the piece, with his story feeling a little slow at times, the second half is given over the monster, and it is here the pace quickens, with a ferocious excitement as man and monster come head to head.

But while we have a clear visual cue of the monstrosity, Blackeyed Theatre has also remained faithful to Shelley’s magnificent description of the creature – his waxy skin and lustrous black hair – and Frankenstein’s wild-eyed voicing of it is as powerful as the creature before us.

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Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein with his creature

Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein is a sensation. Arriving disheveled and broken on the ship of explorer Robert Walton (Ashley Sean-Cook), he tells his tale as a warning. But as the story switches back to his thirst for knowledge, and his moment of creation, we see his ambition. His eyes flash with excitement as he digs through the graveyard to fulfil his experiment, and there lies one of Shelley’s greatest questions – is Frankenstein a genius, or a maniac?

Writer John Ginman peppers the language of the piece with signs of darkness and devilish undertones from very early on, nudging us towards the novel’s rich tapestry of themes. There is nature, captured by deep looks into the distance and flashes of lightening, versus nurture, seen in the warmth bestowed on Frankenstein by his friend Henry (Max Gallagher) and his companion Elizabeth (Lara Cowin).

There is science, which we see and hear through the tinkering and clanging of his cleverly constructed instrument cabinet, versus religion, which is stark when Walton bellows ‘if you can control nature, you are God!’.

The cabinet is not the only piece of ingenuity in the staging. Victoria Spearing has designed a versatile set, with Walton’s ship morphing into various locations. Ropes become power cables in the laboratory, and sails become curtains in the bridal bedroom. With a very active smoke machine, and a powerful, and at times heart-quickening, score composed by Ron McAllister, it makes for a tremendously atmospheric production.

Undoubtedly Blackeyed Theatre’s fantastic monster will be the talking point of this piece, as he has been in every take on Frankenstein in popular culture, but there subtleties of language and theatrics which really make this stand out as a masterful retelling of the classic Gothic novel.

Frankenstein is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 24 September. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.