Robert Hampton

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6th September 2011

Blowing away the cobwebs
Posted by at 1.50pm | No responses | Out and About

London Euston stationWell, it has been a while since I last blogged, hasn’t it? I’m not quite sure what explanation I can offer. Maybe nothing interesting has happened in my life; maybe I’ve been too lazy to write anything. I suspect it is some combination of the two.

Now, however, it’s time for me to account for my whereabouts since Friday. If you’ve been following my Tweets, you will have noticed that I was in London over the weekend. A trip to the Smoke was something I’ve been pondering for a while, I decided to go to celebrate my birthday (which was yesterday, in fact). It proved to be a great weekend, offering the chance to catch up with friends old and new.

London is not exactly friendly to the cost-conscious traveller, but I managed to make savings. I travelled with London Midland rather than Virgin Trains, thus saving me nearly £50, albeit with a journey of three and a half hours (and a change of train). When it came to hotels, I eschewed Zone 1 in favour of a budget hotel in Docklands, which worked out cheaper even when the extra costs of travelling to/from town were factored in.

Docklands Light Railway TrainAnother exciting thing about staying in the Docklands area (and, if I’m being honest, a factor in my choice of hotel) was that I got to ride the Docklands Light Railway for the first time ever! It’s a wonderful system, and even though it’s nearly a quarter of a century since the first part of it opened, the DLR’s computerised, driverless trains still seem impossibly futuristic. One slight spanner in the works was the weekend closure of the line nearest to our hotel for engineering works, but I still managed to get in a fair amount of mileage under my belt.

Travelling is always an experience best shared and I was fortunate enough to have my intrepid friend Scott Willison with me, after he responded to a pathetic begging Tweet sent by me. However, he had other commitments on Friday and couldn’t travel down with me, so on Friday evening I was left to my own devices.

Luckily, I have other friends (difficult to believe, I know) to fill the gap. On Friday afternoon I met up with former schoolchum and all-round good bloke Seb Patrick. Although we’ve kept in touch via Facebook, blogs and the occasional e-mail, this was our first face-to-face meeting for (and I still can’t quite believe it’s been this long) 11 years. I was worried beforehand that we would have nothing to talk about, but those fears proved unfounded as we talked for several hours, catching up over a few genial pints in a Wetherspoons.

Croxley Green stationSaturday was a great day – the daytime was spent Station Mastering in deepest Hertfordshire, exploring the Croxley Green branch line, which bizarrely still has two stations with signs at the roadside despite not seeing a train since 1996. Scott and I were pleased to be joined by another new pal – Ian Jones – who, besides occasionally commenting here, also writes several blogs and contributes to the excellent TV Cream. The adventure will be written up in a future Station Master post, but here’s a picture to whet your appetite.

Saturday evening was reserved for theatrical antics. Rather than see a big West End show, I opted for an altogether different experience, going to see Betwixt at the Trafalgar Studios. I became aware of it a few weeks ago Stephen Fry raved about it on Twitter. He’s not exactly unbiased, because his boyfriend is in it, but the show has been getting generally good reviews. When I discovered that it was closing on 10th September, I decided to see what the fuss was about and booked tickets for Scott and myself. After a mad dash to the theatre due to miscalculating the time it would take to travel there, we settled into our seats in Trafalgar Studio 2, a tiny basement theatre consisting of three rows of streets surrounding a small performance space. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a hugely entertaining show.

Betwixt posterThe story revolves around New York author Bailey who is struggling to beat writer’s block and come up with a follow-up to his smash-hit first book. Along with his friend Cooper he finds himself transported into a strange fantasy world, populated with princes, princesses, nymphs and a woman who is nothing but a disembodied head.

For reasons which are never explained in detail, Bailey and Cooper have to locate a missing Prince who bears an uncanny resemblance to a soap opera actor in the “real world”. It took a little bit of effort to buy into the premise, but once I did so, I enjoyed the show immensely.

The show makes good use of the intimate space, with characters sometimes wandering around through the aisles of the theatre amongst the audience. Occasionally the characters break the fourth wall by addressing the audience or interacting with the musicians who share the performance space.

The cast — including, bizarrely, former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan playing three different roles — is excellent. The performances are (deliberately) over the top, with lots of shouting and comedy accents, but it works in the context of the ludicrous situation that our protagonists find themselves in.

Steven Webb in BetwixtIt is Steven Webb, as Bailey’s room-mate Cooper, who is the standout performer. Cooper is gay, and an unashamed flouncing camp stereotype at that, but Webb plays the role perfectly, correctly judging when to rein in his performance to avoid overshadowing the scene, and when to ramp it up for comic effect.

There was a hilarious joke about Terminator: Salvation which brought the house down, but you had to be there.

The show still has a few days to run and I recommend you beg, borrow, steal or do whatever you have to do to get tickets.

Sunday was reserved for general wandering round, starting with a saunter through exclusive Mayfair where we saw, in quick succession, Claridges Hotel, a shop selling yachts and a Bentley dealership. The cars were slightly out of our price range, so we quickly moved on.

We then found ourselves in the only slightly less pretentious environs of the Abercrombie & Fitch store. Being a Sunday, it wasn’t due to open until midday but there was already a sizeable queue outside. It was starting to rain, so we decamped to the dryness of a nearby Starbucks.

Inside Starbucks, a tramp wandered in, stole some sandwiches from the refrigerator, and wandered out again, while we watched in bewilderment.

By the time we’d finished our coffees, it was after 12 and Abercrombie & Fitch was open. We decided to go in. For me it was strictly a fact-finding mission: I was Mr Spock studying the local culture to compile a report.

Inside I quickly became disorientated. I’m not sure if it was because of the shirtless man on the door; the dim lighting; the cologne that is wafted through the air-conditioning system or the staff who are everywhere and kept stopping me to ask if I was OK. It was very nice of them to keep asking; maybe they’d thought I’d walked in by mistake. I certainly don’t look like the average A&F customer.

Anyway, the confusion must have got the better of me, because I ended up buying a T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts, for which I was charged the princely sum of £56. It’s not a brand, it’s a lifestyle. Or something. Ahem.

The rest of the afternoon was somewhat hampered by heavy downpours of rain, which meant we had NO CHOICE but to spend quite a long time sitting in a gay bar in Soho drinking beer and flicking through Boyz magazine. Ahem.

Robert and AvrilThen it was time for Scott and I to go our separate ways for a while. I headed to Leicester Square tube station to meet up with another friend, Avril, who used to work with me in Liverpool before she decamped to London to pursue an acting career. Distance and the pressures of work means we don’t get the opportunity to see each other often, however the bond we forged while dealing with mountains of legal paperwork remains strong. We spent an hour or so in a café sharing scandalous gossip with each other, before continuing our conversation while walking past the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, ending up in Trafalgar Square where we snapped a quick picture.

Having bid a sad farewell to Avril, I met up again with Scott and – after dinner in a nearby Pizza Express – we headed off for the final activity of the weekend: West End Bares.

West End Bares posterWe were fortunate enough to get tickets to this once a year charity burlesque show, where some of the finest actors and actresses of the London stage perform sexy stripteases for a raucous crowd of onlookers.

An added layer of class was provided by celebrity hosts (who mercifully kept their clothes on) Gok Wan and Sheridan Smith, helped out by a surprise appearance by Paul O’Grady who as usual dispensed with the script he’d been given and simply adlibbed an expletive-filled monologue for his alotted time slot.

The evening concluded with “the Rotation”, where onlookers had the opportunity to shove money into the waistbands of the dancers’ underwear. It’s for charity. Ahem.

Despite feeling slightly out of place in the Café de Paris (the toilets had an attendant, for crying out loud) I think we both enjoyed the show very much and it was a great way to round off the weekend.

So in short, I can thoroughly recommend London. Get there before the tourists find out about it!

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