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.

Light up Reading

Before you read this blog post, open up YouTube, search for Kayne West’s All of the Lights and crank it up.

There couldn’t be a better soundtrack for this post which is quite literally about ALL OF THE LIGHTS. Like this dazzling cube of multi-coloured goodness:

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That’s just one of the exhibits which form part of Light Up Reading, a trail of illuminations which are dotted around the town from now until Saturday, 17 December.

I was so excited to be invited to the launch on Thursday and to see the town lit up in a real rainbow of colour. There are 11 stops on the map, although some are events running on specific dates only, and we started at the Thames Tower High Striker by Reading train station.

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Anyone who lives in Reading will have seen the Thames Tower gradually taking shape, and to now see the entire building dominating the skyline and lit up in a rainbow of colours really is spectacular. The lights change in different sequences, running in pinks, blues, purples, greens, reds and yellows, and it’s all a bit like a gigantic Rubik’s cube. There’s also a bit of fairground fun with a platform you can strike to send the colours running up the building.

The Thames Tower High Striker illumination is definitely the showstopper but there are also some nice little installations tucked around the town. Our second stop was the Box of Hopes, which is in the lobby of 3 Forbury Square.

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The box features squares created by children from Polehampton Infant’s School in Twyford who were asked to draw their hopes and dreams for the world. Some of them are very sweet, very charming, and a few, like the one simply asking for love and peace, are very poignant too.

At the top of 3 Forbury Square there is a second installation, Reading’s own Northern Lights. Although it was way too high for a decent picture, it’s a clever little idea, with blues and greens changing slowly, way up in the sky.

Our next stop was the Abbey Ruins which were glowing with blues, pinks, reds and purples. Seeing such an historic area of Reading lit up in a very modern way was really quite dazzling, but there was also something a little eerie at seeing these old buildings brought to life in the night.

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After a quick stop off at the Oracle to see the shopping centre’s beacon glowing on top of the car park, we headed over to the bridge near Queen’s Road Car Park. We almost decided to give it a miss, as it was so cold, but I’m so glad we didn’t. Turning the corner we saw lots of tiny candles dotted all over the bridge, lighting up a walkway for passers by.

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And as we got closer a chap invited us to take a splint and help keep the flames going. It was quite a challenge as it was pretty windy, but it felt so…calming. Each of the 500 candles was actually a terracotta dish created in collaboration with art students from Reading College and there was something quite magical about all of the lights flickering in the darkness. It was the perfect end to our trail.

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Light Up Reading is the grand finale of the incredible Reading Year of Culture, which has seen so many amazing performances, speakers and events taking place. Reading has well and truly been put on the map and the year has demonstrated how vibrant and culturally rich our town really is. It’s been a total joy to experience the year of culture, from making biscuits with the incredible Bompas & Parr to interviewing George the Poet on stage and the organisers have really done our town proud.

I’m so excited to see what happens next in Reading and to find out how the Year of Culture’s legacy will live on and continue to make our town a brilliant place to live.

Review: High Society at The Mill at Sonning

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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

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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.

Exciting events on the horizon

Winter is most definitely here – the Christmas adverts are out, we’re sipping festive drinks and the bobble hat is an acceptable clothing choice again (hoorah!).

It also means that it’s nearly time for all those lovely festive events like wandering around the wooden cabins of a Christmas market in Bath, or popping in to London to enjoy all the twinkling Christmas lights.

I absolutely adore this time of year and all the cosy gatherings that go with it. Give me a pub with a roaring log fire and a mulled wine and I’m good until January.

That said, there are a few local events that will definitely have me out of my hibernation.

Gorgeous artwork by Whiteknights Studio Trail artist Cath Baldwin
Gorgeous artwork by Whiteknights Studio Trail artist Cath Baldwin

First up is the Whiteknights Studio Trail Comes to Town exhibition which is running at Haslam’s estate agents in Friar Street, Reading on Friday 18 November from 6.30pm-9pm and Saturday 19 November from 9.30am-4pm. The Whiteknights Studio Trail is a walking trail which takes places over the summer, where artists open up their homes and studios so visitors can see their work. There is always such a fantastic range of art on show, everything from textiles to jewellery. This is a rare opportunity for people to see and buy some fantastic local art work outside of the usual summer showcase, and right in the heart of town too.

Last year's festive cross stitch at MakeRDG
Last year’s festive cross stitch at MakeRDG

Next is the wonderful MakeRdg from Jelly. Last year I went along to one of their brilliant cross stitch workshops and I’m so pleased to see MakeRDG is returning this year. Running from Wednesday 30 November to Sunday 11 December, MakeRDG will taking place in the former Jackson’s department store in Reading, and will include a craft market open from 11am to 6pm, Santa’s Grotto on the weekends, and a whole host of workshops including luxury wreath making with Sonning Flowers and a Festive Knit Night. They’ve also got Nomad Bakery joining them this year so you can pick up something delicious while you’re browsing too! There’s loads more info over on the Jelly website and I would totally recommend popping in to see their treasure trove of goodies while you’re in town doing the Christmas shopping.

Let the illuminations begin!
Let the illuminations begin!

And last but not least, I am SO excited for Light Up Reading. A grand finale to what has been an absolutely incredible Year of Culture, Light Up Reading is a trail which will see 11 installations and light events in the town centre, including pedal powered film nights, an illuminated bridge and the Thames Tower High Striker, which is described as ‘a fairground-style interactive lighting of the building in front of Reading Station.’ It sounds as if this is going to be absolutely spectacular and you can catch it from 1 December to 17 December. I can’t wait to pop along to the opening night on 1 December.

I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the fun things that will be happening over the next few weeks and I’m looking forward to sharing lots of festive happenings on the blog throughout November and December. Now where’s my Christmas jumper…

The Marvellous MERL Grand Opening Festival

A stunning wicker horse which stands near an exhibit explaining the role horses have played in farm work throughout history

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is without question one of Reading’s cultural gems.

Sitting just on the outskirts of town, MERL, which is owned by the University of Reading, is a treasure trove of artefacts with everything from a whole wall of Ladybird books, to huge metal farming machines.

So much love for these vintage Ladybird books
So much love for these vintage Ladybird books

MERL was originally opened in 1951 with the purpose of recording the rapidly changing countryside after World War Two but it’s just been given a new lease of life with a £3 million redevelopment project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. After months of hard work, MERL finally opened its doors to the public on Saturday with a Grand Opening Festival.

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#TheMERLisback

Having never been to MERL, despite writing about their events for three years when I worked at The Post, I was intrigued as to what it was going to be like. If I’m honest I didn’t expect a ‘farming museum’ to really light my fire but after an hour of walking around the exhibits going ‘this is SO cool!’ I knew my preconceptions had been totally wrong.

MERL is so much more than a farming museum. It’s a wonderful snapshot of community life through history, with snippets of how people worked, what they ate, where they lived and so on.

A model of a farmer sowing crops by hand
A model of a farmer sowing crops by hand

The gallery is much bigger than I expected and the history inside it is just fascinating. It is so interesting to see how farming techniques have developed over the years, and to discover how everyday life has changed, from the recipes people used to make to the type of houses they lived in.

There are some fabulous old signs and posters dotted around the museum
There are some fabulous old signs and posters dotted around the museum

One of my favourite exhibits was an old fire engine, which was used until the late 1930s. It’s crazy to think that until relatively recently this was what would trundle up when a fire was blazing.

A fire engine which was used up until the late 1930s
A vintage fire engine

This retro bicycle was also fabulous, and on the display it explained how bicycles were once a luxury and only really used by the wealthy.

While we were looking at this a couple next to us were debating how hard it would be to ride it. Verdit: very hard.
While we were looking at this a couple next to us were debating how hard it would be to ride it. Verdict: very hard.

And look whose book we spotted in a section about dairy production!

A young Bezza
A younger Bezza!

The redevelopment has seen some fantastic interactive elements added to the museum too, including little games like the one below which puts you in the shoes of a sheep farmer with a flock to look after. There was also a circular table which had an interactive screen on its surface and several key pads so people could play together.

MERL has some fantastic interactive games and displays
MERL has some fantastic interactive games and displays

We could have easily spent all day in the galleries alone but there was plenty of other activity going on in the museum’s garden area to celebrate the reopening, including a working apple press run by Richard Paget from My Apple Juice.

Some of the delicious looking apples which were used in the apple press
Some of the delicious looking apples which were used in the apple press

We also watched some Morris dancing by Windsor Morris (because you can’t have a celebration of rural life without it!) and met the adorable donkeys, pig, and goats from the Millers Ark Petting Farm.

The Morris dancers waving their flags and jingling their bells!
Windsor Morris doing their thing!
Lovely little donkeys from Millers Ark Petting Farm
Lovely little donkeys from Millers Ark Petting Farm

It was a lovely, autumnal morning and it was fantastic to discover the wealth of history and culture we have right here on our doorstep in Reading.

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

Review: Dracula at Progress Theatre

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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.

10 things I’ve learnt from bootcamp

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When I started Reading Bootcamps, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a big change in myself.

I thought I’d get a bit fitter, and it would help with my motivation to actually exercise, but over the last few weeks it’s had a huge impact on me. I feel happier, healthier and stronger, and with one week left to go, I thought I’d have a look back at some of the things I’ve learnt along the way.

  1. Exercise with other people is so much more motivating.

There’s something about knowing you’re not the only one who has to haul themselves to the top of a hill and then do 10 burpees which just makes it that little bit easier.

  1. Some exercises will get easier over time.

Prior to bootcamp I had absolutely no core strength and could barely hold a plank for 10 seconds. On Wednesday I clocked up well over a minute, and I can now do a press up without having my knees on the ground. Boom!

  1. Training outside feels so much nicer than the gym.

There’s just something about stepping out into the fresh air and getting your sweat on outside which beats the gym hands down. If it’s nice weather you get to enjoy the sun on your arms, and if it’s not, it sort of makes you a bit more determined just to get through it.

  1. The support of a group of ladies is invaluable.

One of the loveliest things about Reading Bootcamp is how supportive the ladies are to each other. Whether it’s in the group Whatsapp message, where members post their times from Park Runs or 10Ks, and others send a message to say well done, or during a fitness test when your partner reminds you that you’re nearly there and you’re doing really well. It is awesome.

  1. It sounds cheesy, but regular exercise is good for the mind as well as the body

Three weeks ago I was barely doing exercise once a week. Now I’m up to two or three sessions a week, and I feel so much better in my self. Whether it’s just feeling a little calmer at work, or knowing that if I am stressed I can work it out on the field later, it just gives me something else to focus on, and makes me feel better.

  1. Bootcamp instructors don’t have to be terrifying

I’ve always imagined bootcamp instructors as the one from Spice World the movie (randomly played by Michael Barrymore) shouting instructions and making you feel like you’ll never make it through. But our instructor Jem, isn’t like that at all. Jem’s great at pushing us when we need to be pushed, like encouraging us to pick our knees off the floor for just 10 more seconds in a push up, but there’s no barking orders at us or telling us to do anything we can’t. The whole atmosphere of bootcamp is friendly and encouraging, and right from my first session I felt part of the group.

7. You can make time for exercise

This was a big one for me at the beginning of bootcamp and I thought there was no way I’d squeeze enough sessions in. To be fair, most week’s I’ve done two sessions instead of the suggested three, but even that has made me feel so much better, and I topped one week up with an extra session at Park Run on Saturday. For me it was just about realising that exercise doesn’t have to write off an entire evening, and knowing that the benefits out way the effort of having something else in the diary.

  1. The willpower to work has to come from you

As much exercising with others does massively help (see point one!), the desire to a) turn up at bootcamp and then b) really go for it, has to come from yourself. There have been days I’ve felt sluggish and I’ve let myself drop my plank a bit earlier or whatever, but the days I’ve given myself a pep talk and then really gone for it are the ones which have felt the best.

  1. Dinner always tastes better after a massive work out

It might be because you’ve spent at least five minutes of the session dreaming about what you’re going to have for tea, or just because you’ve totally earned it, but there’s something about really working yourself hard that makes dinner afterwards taste so much better. I bought the Joe Wicks Lean in 15 cookbook about the same time as I started bootcamp (just by coincidence as it had been recommended by a friend) and tucking in a healthy chicken pie or cheesy chorizo dish after exercise feels really good.

  1. When you think you’ve had enough, you can usually keep going for another 10 seconds.

There have been so many times when I’ve been holding a squat or running round the field, when I’ve thought, ‘that’s it, I’m done, I’ve absolutely got nothing else to give’. But a quick shout of ‘keep going’ from Jem, or a friendly, equally exasperated smile, from one of the ladies next to me, has made me push through, and there’s is pretty much always a bit more in there than you think.

Reading Bootcamps offers a free 7 day trial for those who aren’t quite sure about what to expect from a bootcamp. For more information visit readingcamps.co.uk.

I have been invited to team up with Reading Bootcamps for a blogging series so my bootcamp and running club sessions are complimentary, but all opinions are my own. 

 

Review: The Long and The Short and The Tall at Progress Theatre

fourstars

The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.
The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.

Conveying the magnitude of war on stage is a huge task but Progress Theatre has created a fantastically atmospheric production in their version of Willis Hall’s The Long and The Short and The Tall.

Set in British Malaya in the middle of World War II, the play centres around a group of British soldiers who come across a small, abandoned cabin in the jungle. While the soldiers rest and wait for the best time to head back to base camp, an Japanese soldier arrives, and the men find themselves confronted with fresh horrors.

Set designers Tony Travis and Matt Tully (the latter also doubles as director), have created a brilliant piece of staging with the entire space take up by the inside of the wooden-panelled hut – complete with cobwebs, cargo boxes and strong lighting which makes it feel dense and hot, as it should.

All we can see of the outside is through two windows, framed by foliage, but through masterful story-telling we come to believe in a whole jungle beyond the door, with the Japanese army inching ever closer. The tension and pace of the piece is superb – the crackling radio is used to particularly great effect – and director Tully gradually builds the fear of what lies beyond the hut, but also what the men find themselves confronted with inside.

The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Hall creates a powerful image of the war, with this small company of men reflecting the helplessness, fear, chaos and confusion. We are reminded that these fighting machines with their knives and guns have families at home, but so too does the Japanese prisoner who pulls photographs of a wife and children from his wallet.

The exploration of humanity, shown in the soldiers’ increasingly panicked behaviour towards their prisoner is heartbreaking, and Kevin Copping gives a remarkable transformation as Private ‘Bammo’ Bamforth. An arrogant, smart-talking, loud-mouth in the first half, Bammo becomes an unlikely point of hope in the second.

Each soldier has his own motivations, his own fears and morals, and the cast capture the individuality of each man in the company well. Peter Cook as Sergeant Mitchem is a strong and convincing leader, but really as lost as any of his men, while the rage in Corporal Edward Johnstone (Craig Daniels), is alarming, surely not just a product of war?

Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Macleish (Dylan Yates) and Taff (Brett Davis), are perhaps a little stereotypical in their Scottish/Welsh traits, but at the same time Hall makes a point on the universality of war, and while Macleish brings a brooding sense of duty, Evans’ has such friendly, optimistic expressions, you both warm to and pity him.

Smith (Daniel Brown) and Whitaker (Josh Boden) make up the rest of the company, both trying to get by but inevitably trapped in the midst of this unthinkable war.

Their prisoner, played by the brilliant Adrian Tang whose fearful expressions make us wince in solidarity, holds a mirror up to their own situation – each as helpless as another.

While the grim reality of war is vivid, there are plenty of light moments in the banter the men share. And it is exactly that humour and playfulness which warms us to the men, and makes the potential danger beyond the hut so much more horrific.

The Long and The Short and The Tall is at Progress Theatre until Saturday, 17 September. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

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

Finding time to exercise

Neither my leg muscles nor my brain can remember the last time I did three sessions of exercise in one week.

But this week, while my muscles were weeping at the sheer shock of more than one fitness seasion, my brain was doing high fives and cartwheels.

As I said in this post, about week 1 of bootcamp, whenever my diary gets busy, exercise gets crossed off first.

But week two at bootcamp has shown me exactly why exercise shouldn’t be so disposable, and how I can juggle things around to make time for it. When I signed up to the monthly blog challenge with Reading Five Star Bootcamps, (a ladies only bootcamp by the way), it was recommended that I attend at least two bootcamp days and one running session a week, to really feel the difference.

Originally I thought there was no way I was going to make that many days, but by marking out time in my diary, and trying not to think of my hour’s exercise as my whole evening gone, I have made it, and I have felt the difference.

I feel stronger, I feel healthier, my clothes feel less tight, and I have totally mastered how to do a plank. YES!

Here’s a little diary run down of how the week went:

Tuesday – Running session

run3
Being put through our paces in the running session

If you thought a running day was going to be easier than a bootcamp day, you would be wrong. Very wrong. There were about 13 of us in the 45 minute session, and our instructor Jemma totally put us through our paces. Instead of being one long run, the session was split into various running exercises, with a few squats and planks peppered in for good measure. One of the tasks we had to do was take a cone, run for 30 seconds and then drop it. We recovered as we walked back to the start, and then had to go again, trying to reach our cone again in 30 seconds. We did that four times, and I was pretty pleased to actually reach my cone each time. We also did some hill running to finish, which involved teaming up with a Partner and running to various tree markers and back up a fairly mahusive hill. While one person ran the other held a squat. Tough, yes, but totally exhilarating when you pound down the hill on your last run. In the car on the way home I popped on a bit of Adele, sang at the top of my voice, and felt blooming’ amazing.

Squats = okay. Burpees = not okay.
Squats = okay. Burpees = not okay.

Wednesday – Bootcamp session

If my thigh muscles could talk they would have been nudging me on Wednesday saying, ‘seriously? We’re here again already?’. But having cleared out space in diary for three sessions this week, there was no question of me not going. Bootcamp did feel tough following the previous night’s running but once we got back in the zone, there wasn’t really any time to think about achy legs. Jemma mixed up the session from the previous week, so although you’re doing the same kinds of exercises, each day feels fresh and it keeps you on your toes not knowing what’s coming next. With eight in the group today we split into two groups of four and did a relay of different exercises, breaking after each one to run down the field, and then switch activities when we got back. As well as using 2.5kg weights to do squats and Russian twists (where you sit on the floor with your legs off the ground and twist from side to side) we also used the VIPR. The VIPR is a 6kg weight and we had to lift it in the air for a round, and then do bicecp curls for a round. (That’s got to be the reason why I’ve struggled to pull the boot of the car down this week with my poor achy arms!). We also did some boxing, which was great as my partner totally encouraged me to punch harder. It turned out I’d been doing pretty dainty punches and I’ve got a lot more fight in me than that! By the end of the session I was SO glad I’d gone. And I felt like I’d totally mastered the plank. Boom!

Friday – Bootcamp session

A beetroot red but very happy face!
A beetroot red, but very happy, face!

Friday afternoon might not seem like the most obvious time for exercise. You finish work, the weekend has finally arrived, and all you want to do is kick back with a G&T. But having clearly reached an age where Friday night is no longer party night, I was actually looking forward to a bit of bootcamp so I could start my weekend feeling good. We did a lot of 25 second bursts in this session, moving from planks to push ups, to plank push ups and so on. Although I still hate push ups (until this point my arms have been used for lifting chocolate, not my entire body), I definitely feel like I’ve made progress, and I can do a few without having to have my knees on the ground now. It’s only been four sessions but everything feels a bit stronger. We also did squat pulses moving into explosive squats, and dare I say it…I actually quite like the squat bits. You feel the burn, but there’s also a rhythm to it which makes me feel like I can keep going. And of course there were plenty of the dreaded burpees too. Although my body was definitely more tired in this session, I managed to keep going, and it felt good heading into the weekend knowing I had really put some work into it this week.

So. much. running.
So. much. running.

And really, that’s what it comes down to. I feel like I’ve really started to value my body this week. I’m pushing it, and testing what it can do, and in turn it is getting fitter and stronger. I haven’t worried what I’m eating, because I know I’m burning it all off, and I’ve been drinking a tonne of water because that’s what I want and need.

Finding time for exercise is hard, and it probably does help that theatre season hasn’t quite returned yet so I’m not out reviewing as much, but for me it’s trying to think of exercise as part of my daily routine, rather than as an evening that’s gone. When I come home after bootcamp I shower, eat, and then do whatever I would normally do. I’ve probably gone to bed an hour later than normal, but I’ve slept so well it’s all sort of worked itself out. It’s all about priorities, and I’ve realised that making me feel the best I can is definitely up there on the priority list.

Reading Bootcamps offers a free 7 day trial for those who aren’t quite sure about what to expect from a bootcamp. For more information visit www.readingbootcamps.co.uk.

I have been invited to team up with Reading Bootcamps for a blogging series so my bootcamp and running club sessions are complimentary, but all opinions are my own.