Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Birthday Bliss

Last week I celebrated my birthday, something that I never do. Stranger than that, I was the one that surprised my friends. Maybe it was just the familiar theatre bug biting, coupled with a better than expected financial situation in July. But I wanted to celebrate the occasion, if not in style, then in a most memorable way.

I decided to spring for tickets for Phantom of the Opera for my partner, my best friend, and my "theatre disciple" (more on that at a later date methinks). My partner, M, knew of my nefarious plans but the other 2 were completely clueless, which added to my delight when I saw their reactions later.

Kicking off the night at Jom Makan, a Malaysian restaurant in Trafalgar Square, just by the National Gallery, I chose the place solely based on its proximity to the theatre. Having heard mixed reviews, I was ambivalent. But egged on by the rest of us, M went in and spoke to the manager who "guaranteed" the food would be spot on.

It's a curious place. Nothing Malaysian about it at all, apart from some carving on the wall. Modern lampshades, modern furniture, modern open kitchen, no asian waiting staff. So far, so wagamama.

But the food didn't disappoint. Beautiful roti canai and authentic satay (grilled to perfection with that "BBQ charred" taste" as starters; and I had their spicy nasi goreng (fried rice). We expected mediocre, we received pretty damn good. Score!

If you want to try it out, they offer £5 for main courses between 2-7pm on weekdays and children eat free on weekends. Their website: http://www.jommakan.co.uk

After dinner we walked down Haymarket. For those who have never been, Her Majesty's hosts Phantom on one side and across the road, the Royal Theatre Haymarket is currently home to Waiting for Godot. No disrespect to theatre doyens Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, but all our plebian tastes lie more with the musical than the straight play. So when I said proudly to my friends, standing in front of the Godot marquee that this was something I've waited for a long time to see, it was funny to see their eyes glaze over (Best Friend admitted later that if I had chosen Godot, he would have cried. Overly dramatic?!).

And when I turned them round to face the other theatre, the way their faces lit up was precious. Best Friend had never seen the show, although we have both caterwauled and massacred Think of Me countless times whilst inebriated. Theatre Disciple had only seen either the fluffier or smaller scale variety of musical (Sister Act, La Cage respectively) and was postively ecstatic.

Phantom is of course an old warhorse that keeps going and going...a permanent fixture in the West End. But for sheer scale, overblown melodrama, soaring aria-lites, volume of fabric, and a funkylicious dum-dum-dum-dum 80s drum-synth ala Sylvester Cat chasing Tweety Bird, you cannot beat Phantom.

But this was extra special. Only good things have been said about Ramin Karimloo, the current resident of the Opera House. And you can see why. Said to only be on stage for less than 30 minutes, the Phantom's presence needs to be all meanacing and all pervading. The show stands or falls with the man. And WOW, he was absolutely blooming phantastic (*groan*). Best Friend was sobbing throughout Music of the Night. And when he (Phantom, not Best Friend) made that last plaintive cry of "Chriiiiistiiine...", I think it's safe to say there was no bump ungoosed.

It's really no wonder that Mr Karimloo is going to be the Phantom in next year's sequel.

I have seen this production probably in the double digits in the last 20 years but this was the best cast. Gina Beck made a beguiling Christine, all girlish innocence in the beginning, which melts into horrific realisation in the end. Without exception, the acting was superb across the board - even Raoul, one of the drippiest hero parts in musical history was made believable by the rather wonderful Simon Bailey, whose Final Lair scene was truly memorable (complete with unexpected spitting).

Of course sitting in the middle of Row D in the stalls helped; as did the chandelier falling right above our heads; as did the overpriced wine before the show; as did being able to see their faces IN CLOSE UP. But the abiding memory of this show will be the final scene - 3 protagonists, a fury of emotions, and an ending to make the hardest heart yield just a little.

As the Phantom kinda said, I truly made my friends' night and I had a blast. Drinks later at a bar where Best Friend plastered wet napkins on one side of his face in respectful tribute and an impromptu Happy Birthday singalong by the patrons just to embarrass me.

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