Euphorium Bakery (Islington)

Euphorium is a delightful bakery/cafe chain in London. This week I visited the branch in Angel, Islington. It is one of the more inviting establishments on Upper Street – well worth the short walk from Angel tube which boasts three Starbucks (like emergency points on the motorway for people who can go no further). The staff are instantly friendly, and a sign behind them proudly boasts that ‘We give you the smell of freshly baked bread for free.’ They even have baskets of samples on the counter for you to enjoy whilst perusing their menus. From the very beginning, I felt I was on to a winner.

The cafe is split level, so what appears to be a counter/bar with a few tables is really only the first floor, with a more comfortable, open plan space just down some stairs at the back. It’s just the right amount of seclusion from the busy street outside without feeling like you’re underground. Here you can enjoy armchairs and sofas for relaxed socialising as well as tables and chairs for more formal meetings. Free newspapers and Wi-Fi, however standard, do make the experience that bit more pleasurable. The decor is somewhat undefinable but charismatic; the bare brick walls are chalked with various quotes about food, and the area is centred upon a fireplace filled with logs. 

Euphorium prides itself on being the best of British baking, a point which I’m assuming is being emphasised by the various Union Jacks which are lazily scattered around. Made with the freshest sourced ingredients, the menu boasts an impressive selection of breads, baguettes, bagels and focccia. They have a special menu of select ‘Inspired Salads’, which are regularly changed, all for the agreeable price of £4.90. Examples include smoked mackerel, parma ham and full English (just to name a few).

My primary criticism would be that perhaps the cafe element of Euphorium is a little expensive, with a regular Americano costing £2.40. A basic croissant costs £2.10 and the average pastry or tart is close to £4. Whilst I regard this to be generally expensive, I do refrain from using the word over-priced: if you care for good baking, you won’t mind paying this money. All in all, make Eurphorium part of your next trip to Angel.

Euphorium has branches in Islington, Belsize Park, Chapel Market and Hampstead. Find out more on http://www.euphoriumbakery.com

Freddie Mercury: 20 Years On

Freddie Mercury is often forgotten to be included as one of the great who died young, for he was only 45 years old when he died of AIDS complications at his London home in 1991 – twenty years ago today. And like many of the other rock stars we lost too soon, Freddie was a victim of his own hedonistic lifestyle. He lived fast, died young and didn’t care a thing about it. Whether or not he knew it, he was writing his own cultural legacy – and it is one which pervades further than just his skills as a musician.

Freddie was one of the first celebrities to surrender to AIDS, and in the process, his death hit home for many people and accelerated the slow process of de-stigmatising and understanding the disease. This was done however, purely through the event of his passing, and not through any advocation on his behalf. It does sometimes sit uneasily with me that someone as flamboyant, carefree and superbly self-confident as Freddie neglected to admit to both his homosexuality and his AIDS status until the very day before he died. Perhaps it is unfairly assumed in today’s society that people in public positions who find themselves in such circumstances should become trailblazers for the cause. For Freddie, his business was nobody’s but his, and in 1991, being gay was still a career threatening prospect in itself, let alone having AIDS. It does occur to me that Freddie’s plight manages to have as big a significance in hindsight, as it could have had if he had been open about it at the time.

As much as I pride myself on being a huge Queen fan, familiar with the whole back catalogue of their work, to me Freddie Mercury will always mean Live Aid, and the groundbreaking performance he fronted on 13 July 1985 at Wembley Stadium, London. Despite Live Aid bringing together the greatest acts in the world of 1985 (quite a line up as it goes), no one rose to the challenge of igniting both the 72,000 strong stadium and the 2.5 billion television audience as Queen did. The energy of the band and their electrifying effect on the crowd provoked Bob Geldof into giving his famous “just give us the money” rant; it revived Queen as a stadium act, and the performance is voted time and time again by music critics and fans alike as the greatest gig in history.

To me, the performance is more than just quality entertainment. Throughout history, those who have viewed homosexuality with ignorance, fear, disgust or malice, have been directed towards the great things society and culture would never have had without it; the art of Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the wit of Oscar Wilde, not to mention a huge proportion of the last century’s music, television, comedy and fashion. I would argue to no end that Freddie’s performance at Live Aid – with its flamboyancy and showmanship- is one such example of the greatness of homosexuality. And yet, the dramatic irony in all this is that many people at the time – unfamiliar with gay subculture – would still have been surprised to learn he was gay. After all, he was strong and muscular, he wore leather jackets – he had a moustache for crying out loud! That was part of the beauty of the lost art of camp – as Freddie performed, he performed everything that he was, with all the ironies and juxtapositions that came with his sexuality. One moment he was dancing flirtatiously with a cameraman, slipping in some ballet as he went; the next he strutted across the stage and lead the crowd in song like a commander in battle.

He was, by all accounts, giving the greatest live performance in the history of pop music, to the largest recorded television audience, and it’s nearly certain that he was probably already infected with HIV. Not only was he gay, but he was a victim of the disease which allowed the bigots of contemporary society to reignite their fear and stigma of the already struggling gay community. Freddie may not have appeared to speak up for the cause, but it’s safe to say his voice did not go to waste. With hindsight, the feat Freddie performed that day, with all its silence politically, spoke volumes about how homosexuality always had and always would prevail through times and places where it was challenged, and all by the sheer force of courage, camp and artistic magnificence.

Freddie Mercury is one of the unique individuals whose legacy will live on for centuries to come. There is certainly no frontman who can ever take to the stage without falling under the mighty shadow of his raised arm, with his fist clenched triumphantly. Late 2012 will see the release of A Kind Of Magic, the Peter Morgan biopic on Mercury with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen cast to play the man himself; a little unorthodox perhaps, but it is obviously a challenge to which he has proven himself fit to rise. I look forward to the revival of interest in Freddie that it stirs up – not that it’s ever really settled down.

If by some sever misfortune of your upbringing, you have never seen Queen’s Live Aid performance, I beg you to do so now!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQsM6u0a038

Anonymous

As an English Literature graduate, I am fairly well acquainted with the man we know as William Shakespeare. But it wasn’t until I saw a student production of Much Ado About Nothing this Friday night that the curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, which explores the alternative, and well known theory that the works of Shakespeare were not written by the man from Stratford.

Anonymous is written very much in the same vein as Shakespeare In Love, and it makes for great entertainment. We get to enjoy the excitement of the contemporary Globe experience, state of the art graphics depicting Elizabethan London, plenty of the ever present political intrigue, and I might add, a delightfully camp James I. The film depicts a plausible enough culture in which playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare himself mingle as contemporaries, and become embroiled in the plot to present plays to the world, whilst concealing their true author – the Earl of Oxford, wonderfully played by Rhys Ifans. Unfortunately that was where my suspension of disbelief ran out. That the Earl was one of Elizabeth’s illegitimate sons, and that she also unwittingly fathered another child with him, is something I find a bit more difficult to believe (it’s all very Oedipal). The film descends into something of a romp through every Elizabethan rumour, myth and conspiracy, suggesting them all to be true, and offering a very warped history indeed. I feel that whilst alternative authorship theories can and should be examined, this somewhat indulgent film should be taken with a pinch of salt.

With regards the all star cast, Vanessa Redgrave will undoubtedly join the ranks of the great  Hollywood portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I. She carries on the real personalism with which Cate Blanchett played the queen, but by playing her in much later life, she lets us see the old lady underneath the pomp and elaborate dress. Having her daughter Joely Richardson play the younger queen in flashbacks is a nice artistic touch from Emmerich.

I do not hold the strong opinions that many Shakespeare scholars do. I feel that so little is known about Shakespeare the man that his works are all we truly know and love him for. It would be no great loss to find out that that the real author was some other figure. Whether it was the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or indeed Elizabeth herself – the person who penned the plays is the true literary hero; the real Shakespeare. The man from Stratford may be a mere figure head – like the unknown soldier of literature. Irrespective of the authorship, the complete works still remain the finest pieces ever written in the English language, and that is something which can never be disproved.

Anonymous is at cinemas everywhere now.

We Were Here

 

We Were Here is a powerful new film about the effect of AIDS on the gay men of San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a gala screening of the film in London, jointly hosted by Attitude magazine and the Terence Higgins Trust.

The documentary is a combination of archive footage and new testimonials from a few figures who were fully involved in the Castro Street scene – who had just begun to bask in their own liberation when the terrifying disease, yet to be recognised as AIDS, infiltrated their community and struck down more than 50% of the gay population. The director

interviews a few people whose circumstances meant that greatness was truly thrust upon them. There was the newly trained nurse who became a researcher, a samaritan, and a shoulder for many a bereaved family member to cry on; the young volunteer who felt at odds with his community at first but eventually became a major political activist; and the artist who lost two partners, countless friends, and still battles with HIV today himself. All in all, the demonstration of camaraderie this film depicts is unique, admirable, and a moving snapshot of a period in time that we will hopefully never experience again.

During the Q&A conducted by director David Weissman after the film, many audience members were keen to relate what they saw on screen to what they themselves had experienced in London, and for some of the younger viewers like myself, it helped to bring the topic a little closer to home. People voiced the usual concerns over younger generations acting more careless with casual sex – perhaps because of advances in HIV treatment. However much truth there is in that, it is important that people who did not live through the days when AIDS really was a death sentence get to educate themselves through this film. It is doubly staggering to see both what this disease is capable of, and what epic feats people performed in tackling it.

The San Francisco AIDS outbreak is often glossed over as a mere moment where the epidemic began, ‘and the rest is history’. In fact, this period which the film covers is a history all in itself, and one which should be acknowledged and understood not only by the gay community, but by people from every background, because AIDS does not discriminate – it threatens all. The film is informative, moving, devastating and very much life-affirming. I implore you to see it.

We Were Here opens at selected UK cinemas on 25 November.

Jerusalem

I shall freely admit that my trip to see Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – currently enjoying a post-Broadway return to London – was purely to see what all the fuss was about. On account of the run being completely sold out, I settled for day seats, given away each morning at 10am, for the small price of £10, and a few hours in the cold; which my iPhone informed me was somewhere around 5 degrees celsius (40 Farenheit for any U.S. readers). Getting to the theatre shortly before 8am, I realised I may already have been too late, as a queue of about 20 people snaked before me, headed by a smug group of men claiming to have been there since 5am. Indeed the box office told me 6am was the standard arrival time for a successful queuer. The gentleman behind me had already tried queuing once, as had his son; the lady behind him was there because friends told her she “must see it”, and a lady from New York told a gripping story to the group about meeting Mark Rylance (the star of the show) at a party and getting to touch his Tony (not a euphemism I assure you). Anticipation mounted, and by the time I successfully attained my pair of tickets, I was expecting some serious entertainment.

Arriving at the Apollo Theatre later that evening, I felt somewhat cheated by what I had queued for – front row balcony seats (effectively the 4th floor of a narrow but tall Edwardian theatre) which were restricted not only by low seats and a high bar in front of them, but also by lighting rigs which obstructed the view to the stage. Indeed some combination of height sickness and claustrophobia forced my plus one to relocate to a seat near the door with the usher mid way through the first act. (A regular theatre critic, you can read his glowing review here: http://www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk/jerusalem).

There is no denying that Jerusalem is slow to start. A lengthy first act appears to offer little more than a snapshot depiction of some lower class undesirables in rural England; at first, Mark Rylance’s award-winning performance was on no higher plane than David Threlfall’s continued portrayal of Frank Gallagher in Channel 4’s Shameless, and indeed that provides something of a benchmark for the kind of comedy and subject matter the play explores. His character, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is something of a social rebel; living in a caravan, defying the council and the world at large, and providing a party haven for the youths of the local town. Set across one day, we see him facing an eviction which he attempts to dodge; inevitably evoking the Dale Farm scenario. Having premiered as recently as 2009, this state-of-the-nation play is current and full of contemporary references; refreshing in the midst of the many classics the West End usually puts on. But by the time the first interval came around, I wasn’t alone in wondering just what all the fuss was about.

Then, the second and third acts open up, and the scene begins to unravel and show unexpected depth of narrative. Rooster is revealed as something of a martyr, symbolic of a lost cause, a victim of his own failed ideals. There are moments of gruesome violence, unsettling verbal abuse, and tender moments between he and his son, and with the young Phaedra which feel much more raw than theatre. The narrative is a patchwork of scenes, and the other characters only serve to assist the explosion of Rooster as a character. His plight is something which the audience must interpret for themselves – it is a task, and I have no shame in admitting it was one with which I struggled.

In spite of the immediate amazement that comes from witnessing Rylance’s memorable performance, I feel Jerusalem is a play which requires some consideration before it can be fully appreciated. It is likely a modern masterpiece, but its themes are so vast, and its implications so profound, that it is difficult to grasp even in the 3 hours 20 minutes of performance. If you enjoy modern theatre, definitely see it now; you’ll have plenty of time to think about it later.

Jerusalem runs at the Apollo Theatre, London until 14 January. Day seats are available every day at the box office at 10am.

The Help

Most people may consider One Day to have been the book adaptation movie of the year, but box office takings tell a different story. One Day has made $40million; The Help has made $193million. Admittedly, The Help was more successful in the U.S. than in the U.K. due to a more modest advertising campaign, but it has performed impressively in spite of this.

The Help takes us back to the well-worn scene of the 1960s American deep south, the setting of many a classic film over the past few decades – so it has to take a fresh enough topic to make this kind of film work. The Help focuses on the contradictory institution of black servants effectively running white households, raising the children that live in them, and yet being so drastically discriminated against that they cannot even use the family’s indoor toilet. Divisions of race, as well as class and gender, run through the movie as reminders of America’s dark modern history. Indeed, for those who have been enjoying the Upstairs, Downstairs element of Downton Abbey, there is something of an American translation to be found in The Help.

Whilst it has become somewhat standard for any highly successful novel to be subject to a film adaptation these days, the visual potentials of The Help seem to make its shift to the big screen particularly more inevitable – largely on account of its setting in the 1960s, a highly popular reference point in current fashion and art. One need only look at the recent success of TV shows like Mad Men, the mini-series on The Kennedys, or even the Jackie O dresses which appeared in lines this summer to see the period has popular appeal. The Help is full of rich, colourful scenes in which every element of set, background, costume, prop and make up have been meticulously designed to perfectly capture the aesthetics of contemporary American culture; apparent even from the basic film poster. In particular, Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography is to be commended.

The history of African-American prejudice is dominated by the actions of men (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, Ross Barnett, the KKK), so it is refreshing to see that the centre figure of racial hatred in this film is be a woman: the despicable social pillar Holly Holbrook. She shows that in many ways, the women – like the men – allow themselves to be led from the top, and band together against what they perceive to be an enemy.

The alternative is Skeeter Phelan, a young white university graduate attempting to become a published journalist, who acts as our ticket through the film’s narrative. She decides to write the untold story of the black women who work as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, by gaining their trust and forging a certain empathy with them. She allows the women she meets to paint vignettes of their history which in turn allows the film to present the socio-historical conditions on that all-important personal level. Their camaraderie goes deeper than just the bridging of two conflicted races; they are also united as women in a society which still very much belongs to the men. To see the cracks begin to form, and the understandings beginning to transpire between these women, kept apart by the laws of men which are entrenched upon their minds, is an untold story in itself. Prepare to have your heart warmed.

The Help is currently in cinemas nationwide. The original novel by Kathryn Stockett is available everywhere.

Jack Whitehall @ Hammersmith Apollo

As his role in the new comedy show ‘Fresh Meat’ continues to secure Jack Whitehall as a household name, on November 8th I attended one of the final performances of his ‘Let’s Not Speak Of This Again’ tour. For most people in the audience, there appeared to be a general curiosity about what Whitehall would be like when he wasn’t on television, and where better to demonstrate that than in the mecca of comedy venues – the HMV Hammersmith Apollo.

For contemporary Britain, Whitehall offers a refreshing comedic type – he’s neither the traditional camp talk show host, nor the middle aged, made-for-panel-show, lamenting house husband. He’s young, he’s marketable, and something of an expert on popular culture – regularly tearing apart celebrities and mocking C-list wannabes from reality TV shows. He’s not, however, just one of the lads. He’s on fairly good terms with his feminine side (see how effortlessly Google suggests the word ‘gay’ as you search his name), although he is a confident heterosexual; and of course, he is undeniably posh.

In fact, being posh is Whitehall’s primary source of self-mocking – it is most likely the explanation behind the stoic statement which gives the tour its name. Of course there are his general inadequacies in the pursuit of growing up, but such anecdotes tend to be so full of references to his privileged background that it’s difficult to escape it as an overarching theme. When he tells us his school (Marlborough if you’re interested) was “so Caucasian, it made Midsomer Murders look like The Wire”, he manages to mock his own origins suitably whilst keeping the audience on his side, still managing to make a down-to-earth impression on people like Dom – the evening’s typical lad with a beer in the front row who is repeatedly picked as a port-of-call when Whitehall questions his own masculinity.

At 23, Whitehall is still quite young, and the many stories of his youth are coloured by the presence of his mother and father in the audience, at what is effectively his hometown gig. As is the case with most comedians, his parents are highly caricatured – presented as the creators of the attention-seeking yet self-loathing performer we see before us. He tells of how his mother held up his stained underwear to demonstrate why Kate married William instead of him (not that that was ever a real possibility), and how his father confiscated his roller blades to prevent him from looking like “a sissy” at the ripe old age of 11 (before realising it was something of a lost cause). As hindsight begins to kick in though, he is fearful that they may have been right all along. That being said, the fact that he can mime trying to quietly hump a girl at his parents’ house while they watch from just a few rows away, gives as much credit to his relationship with them as it does to him as an entertainer.

The show twists and winds through tales of failed relationships with girls and successful relationships with chain restaurants; his love of retro mobile phones and his hatred of American customer service; and his imagined relationship with ‘old school pal’ Robert Pattinson. Finally, he appears dressed in the bright yellow chicken costume he was wearing as he drunkenly tried to prove his maturity to a disgruntled girlfriend. He is currently single.

Jack Whitehall’s ‘Let’s Not Speak Of This Again’ tour is sold out, but will have a DVD release on 26 November. Next year he will star in his own prime time Channel 4 show called ‘Hit The Road Jack’.