The end of Day Three, but it is still just the first day in London. I would give our route, but it was at night, and in a taxi.
A settlement has existed in the area since the Roman times of Londinium, and has been the home of a fruit and vegetable market since the 1600’s. It no longer houses that market, but it has long been associated with the theatre. In the mid 18th century the Covent Garden area become notorious for its immorality and rowdy atmosphere and by 1813 an Act of Parliament was needed to regulate the market. It is still a bit lively.
So, you last saw us leaving All Hallows Church and the Tower of London. It was dark and getting cold, although it was only about five in the afternoon. We have to be in Covent Garden by seven, and I think we have plenty of time to get back to the hotel and change. The trip from the hotel to Covent Garden is only about 10 minutes by Tube.
Earlier, we found the Tower Hill Station and used it to travel back to the hotel. There is a leeetle glitch when I get us on the wrong platform and we go the wrong way. I catch the mistake in about two stops, but it does set us back a little. We scamper from the station to the hotel and run into the room to change. We are still full from our late lunch and decide that we will eat later.
I will tell you where we are going, because you don’t need to be surprised. Rowan and I are going to see Mamma Mia, which is a very nice, fun play. When I told my sister that I was going to London, she said, instantly, that I must go see a play. I know that Rowan is a huge Abba fan. There is some weird Scot-Abba connection. I think that the guy who wrote a lot of their songs was a Scot. Anyway, she is a huge fan. She has emailed me a ton of YouTube Abba videos, with nostalgic explanations. I have wanted to see the play, and our seats, though cheap, should be good. When I ordered the tickets, the ticket lady assured me that there were only good seats in this theatre and called me “luv” in a heavy Cockney accent.
I am going to have Rowan write this, mostly because I think it is her turn to do some more work. I will only comment as necessary. I find that I have to defend myself a bit, as Rowan takes artistic license at my expense. That is what happens when your friend is a writer.
We head back to the hotel and get ready to go out. Bob has mentioned since she arrived that I will need to have something smart and dressy to wear for our mystery evening out on the town. I have been trying to worm our destination out of her with every sly technique possible – wide-eyed innocent questions such as, “Where are we going?” and more subtle attempts at gleaning cues, which revolve around a constant low-level whine about needing a clue as to the destination, before I can adequately decide on the appropriate attire. Bob is completely invulnerable to all whining tactics, as an attempt to winkle out information. I realise that I am well and truly beaten, and that I am going to be surprised, which is really very cool.
(Rowan is almost as bad as my children at trying to worm out information. Years of practice make me invulnerable to her feeble attempts.)
I look through my meagre wardrobe for suitable evening-wear. I have a long black plain skirt, which is fine and all-purpose. The packing-angst which beset me on Tuesday evening has resulted in me not bringing a suitable evening top. (As I recall, Rowan closed her suitcase with a definite thump. She had reached the point where she would not try on one more top and had some Scots sense that there was destiny awaiting her in the form of a suitable top somewhere along the trip.) I actually wore my only nice black top with a hint of muted sparkly beading (I am very muted in my beading) on Wednesday. Bob surveys my potential tops with a curled lip. (I did not.) She tells me that my brown top is too big, and just not suitable. (Well, I did say that.) She is right. I think about wearing a purple woolly jumper, but that isn’t right either. Bob tells me to just wear the black one I had on the day before – no one will know. I have a burst of “wearing yesterday’s top” angst. I know my trusty Mitchum roll-on deodorant repels all perspiration before the signals leave the spinal column for the sebaceous glands, but still …the thought of wearing something two days in a row when out in public (okay, so I might do it at home) gives me a little burst of adrenalin.
I walk up and down, holding the item before me, and take it into the bathroom to examine it on the quiet. It passes olfactory inspection, but I give it a sponge, and then decide to douse it in “Karma”, the “signature fragrance from Lush” which is supposed to be, “reminiscent of The Sixties in London’s swinging Carnaby Street.” It is the perfume equivalent of several unrelenting kicks in the head with a biker boot. Or maybe a wooden clog would be more apt, as it is a decidedly hippy perfume. The room soon reeks of patchouli and cinnamon to an uncomfortable degree. Bob comments icily from within the room that I have reached my optimum Karma threshold. Or everyone else will have. The stuff is dynamite, and will be assaulting nasal passages for a good hundred yards in every direction.
(I object to the term icy. She was just making distressed noises from behind the bathroom door and my eyes were watering. But I made no icy statements.)
We leave the hotel, and get into a taxi, after the young guy at the desk has failed to give us the requested call. The driver is friendly, and gets into the spirit of things with Bob, who requests that he give nothing away about the destination we are heading for. He enjoys the fun, and yells at me to look away as we pass by the bold neon billboards of theatre land, Covent Garden,proclaiming the treasure-trove to be found within the ornamented facades.
(The taxi driver was really great. He got us to the theatre and was chatty about what we were seeing. We went through Chinatown – I did not know that there was one in London. There are already Christmas lights up and it is beautiful.)
We alight at the Prince of Wales Theatre. I still have no idea what we are going to see. People mill around, mostly smartly dressed, but some, mostly young back-packers, I would say, are surprisingly casual. There is a soft hum of conversation, and a palpable sense of excitement. The interior of the theatre entrance is narrow, and we are herded up the red-velvet staircase. I follow Bob’s hissed instructions to keep my eyes down, and look at my feet, avoiding the posters advertising the show, set around on the heavy scarlet flock wallpaper embossed with the “Prince of Wales feathers” design (Three curly feathers in a little posy.) It is very ornate, but exactly fitting. Whoo hoo! I am in a West End theatre. How cool is this! I am very thrilled.
We walk up the steep staircase, and I still have no idea what we are going to see. It is only at the very last minute that someone ahead of me thrusts a be-programmed hand out to steady themselves, and the title of the show is spelled out for me two inches from my nose. Yay! It is “Mamma Mia!” the comedy which is based around Abba’s greatest hits. I am delighted. I luurve Abba (luurve = scottish person trying to sound like a Yank saying love).
My first Album was an Abba album, the one where Agnetha is siting next to husband Bjorn on a park bench, she in nifty tan suede boots, and Bjorn in jaw-dropping platforms. Agnetha looks numb with boredom, and Bjorn reads his newspaper. It is clearly posed, but perhaps a little prophetic.
Maybe she is just miffed that he got the loftier footwear.
I wanted to be Agnetha. Why was she so pretty and could also sing? It just wasn’t fair. Hey – I would have settled for being Frieda. At thirteen, anyone who can wear electric blue skintight satin pants and still sing in public with confidence, is worthy of admiration. Abba were fab-tastic, though. They were da bomb, the boogie, and the proverbial biz. Sigh. Their harmonies were the backdrop to my youth. I loved all their stuff. I went to see, “Abba the Movie” on holiday in Dundee, when I was fourteen. I remember feeling all self-satisfied, a genuine music-lover…Bjorn and Benny were not very attractive, but I still loved Abba. This was a departure for me. It was never ‘all about the music’ before.
One could not say that Donny Osmond had a person toe-tapping and humming, “Puppy Love”, but his smile was incontrovertible.
Bjorn and Benny now – they were straight guys, but wore seriously campy gear, and got away with it, perhaps because they were married to the girl singers, perhaps just because they were Swedes, and made their own rules. Brilliant, baby, brilliant! I remember seeing Bjorn interviewed about the making of the show we are about to see, and am very excited to be sitting in the audience.
Bob and I are sitting near the back of the theatre, and have a great view of the stage.
Just before the show starts, an enormously obese guy comes and plonks himself down next to me. I feel my left lung in danger of collapsing, as he is over-spilling into my personal seat-space. However, I do not want to be obviously impolite, and shift away. I do not want to reinforce any lack-of self-worth he may be experiencing, owing to his extraordinary fatness. As a person twitchy about my own chubbiness, I am projecting like mad. Bob chuckles, and graciously offers to exchange seats with me. I decline, as I feel that the guy may just go and commit suicide in the toilets at interval. I don’t know why, but I have decided that, on no evidence, that he is emotionally fragile on the issue of his weight and would take any shifting about near his person as a personal affront. Anyways, I do not want Bob to be squashed either. This is my karma. And in return, the large bloke has to tolerate my Karma. It seems like kind of a fair exchange.
The show begins. It is a light-hearted comedy about a middle-aged woman who has bought a beach taverna in Greece, and is about to host her daughter’s wedding reception. Unbeknownst to her, the daughter has found her mother’s diary, and invited the three boyfriends she had around the time of her conception, to the wedding, so she can attempt to find out who her father is.
The script is amusing, and the songs are worked into it in a very wry and self-conscious way, which really appeals to the Irony Patroller in me. The cast sing and dance well, and are caught up in the humour of the piece, wholly at one with the audience.
As the show progresses, people become bolder, and begin to sing along with the cast. Bob smiles at this. I can see she is amused by it too. I find it a little touching. All these strangers, singing a little shyly, but incapable of stopping the pull of the Abba vibe, the stirred memories elbowing their way to the surface in silver spandex and embroidered tunics. It is very sweet, this low hum of song from the otherwise sedate audience. The large guy next to me is with a friend, and they are both moving from side to side and waving their hands. It is very cute.
In the interval, we go for a wee walk around the theatre. We stand in the bar area and chat, looking out into the bright street below, and surreptitiously people-watching. Bob motions me over to see a couple huddling behind a pillar, and see that – believe it or not – they have brought a flask and sandwiches with them to the theatre.
They are having a picnic. I turn away, as I know I am going to have to laugh, and I don’t want them to see me. It is too wonderfully funny. Having the right to have a picnic in any given location is a very British thing, a mutually acknowledged national right, a country-wide by-law, but this is deeply incongruous. I snort into my hand, pretending to cough. Bob is snickering quietly too.
We move away from the picnickers and go to examine the souvenir T-shirts. They are devastatingly blingy, but I am attracted to them.
I pass on the t-shirt and we go and watch the second-half. The music is great, the singing from the audience reaches a higher crescendo, and there is a fantastic feelgood vibe, touched with a sentimental sense of youth long-gone, of a comfortable transition into middle-age, with mutual happy memories. It is red-flocked-wall to red-flocked-wall Abba nostalgia. I am in my element. Hey… I even cast off my signature shyness and sing along a little, with the closing number, "Mamma Mia". That was well and truly wonderful.
We spill out into the dark street, and decide to walk a little around Covent Garden before going back to the hotel. There are lots of people milling about, happily chatting. The night is cold, but there is a warm, friendly vibe. This city is at home at night, as in the daytime. This is something new for me. I don’t feel a little vulnerable, being out in the late evening, as I might at home. There is a cosmopolitan bustle here…people look for food outlets, and tarry, chatting about the shows. We wander along past other theatres with famous names, looking at the shows on offer and the big-name stars. It is very fun. There are a string of souvenir shops open, and we spot several items which we promise ourselves to return for, at a later date.
Covent Garden at night is a little like Las Vegas at night. It is full of neon lights glancing off of the pavement. It is cold, but we are not freezing, even though we don’t have jackets. Rowan has a good level of tolerance for browsing through cheap London souvenirs. We discuss the merits of mugs for our kids and realize that we will need to look this over in more detail. We put it on our list of things to do tomorrow. Tentatively, we decide to go back to the Tower and Covent Garden, and say to each other in a firm manner that we must go to the British Museum. Rowan had said that there were two places that she wanted to see in London – the Tower and the British Museum.
Although we taxied over to the show, we take the Tube back to the hotel. We are very brave, because we get off on an unfamiliar stop and walk through the dark streets at a brisk pace. No place to eat suggests itself, and we go back to the hotel for tea and biscuits for a late dinner.
Tomorrow -- the Tower (again!) and the British Museum.