Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Lest you are thinking that Mama never takes us anywhere more child friendly than a benignly disposed art gallery, let it be known that over the Christmas holidays we went to a Panto. Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre.

Aladdin at Stevenage

It was my first visit to such an entertainment. And here’s the thing about Pantos.

They are no place for newbies.

I mean, sure, you think the plot is simple enough, and indeed, should be familiar from your basic bedtime fairytale reading, but what I noticed was that there seemed to be an awful lot of unnecessary diversions, which everybody except me seemed to be expecting, and on top of this, the whole audience including Mama, my Best Big Brother, and Granny and Grandad had been given parts, which they had evidently studied carefully.

I spent the whole time wondering what my lines were and when to join in among a sea of people shouting their heads off in chorus when prompted from the stage. Or booing. Mama in particular seemed to like the booing, which seems uncharacteristically rude.

Mama tells me not to worry and I will get the hang of it. She says that my Best Big Brother was likewise totally bemused for the duration of his first two shows, and only this year, his fourth visit, has he really got the hang of it. And how! He spent most of the performance on his feet bouncing up and down and yelling his head off. Panto suits my Best Big Brother.

Mind you, even Mama found herself sitting there wondering why Aladdin, which is clearly a story which should be set in the Middle East takes place in the Far East, although to be fair, this is the original version of the story and not some way for bygone Pantos to take a pop at two varieties of Johnny Foreigner at once. Presumably even exotic locations need their own exotic locations.

It does mean that, Panto being the comic vehicle that it is, modern theatre has a delicate balancing act to do. Of course, nobody goes to Panto for cutting edge political correctness, but Mama felt adding the two black actors as self proclaimed slaves was an exceptionally bold way to distract us from the fact that this year’s fond Papa was a foolish Chinaman and the bad guy an Arab.

Fairly successful though.

Especially as having the Genie riff off Shaft did at least allow for equal opportunity sexual harassment of the audience. Just as all the women had relaxed as Stevenage’s perennial Dame, Paul Laidlaw, targeted this year’s hapless male in the front row (“You’re going to regret sitting there, Dave”), so the large man in the skin tight suit came and stood opposite them (“Look at my eyes. My *eyes*, lady!”).

Mama sniggered. Sometimes Mama has a very low sense of humour. Low. Look at his EYES, Mama.

At least none of the scripted jokes poked fun at anyone’s origins. Unless you count coming from Stevenage and the surrounding area. Mama, who does, doesn’t. Some things are fair game.

Anyway. My faint bewilderment at the intricacies of the medium and feeling of missing out on some crucial inside information notwithstanding, I did very much enjoy Aladdin.

Of course, this was helped by the fact that for some reason, Panto overrides Mama’s aversion to expensive plastic tat, and we got given huge toys which lit up in three different patterns with practically no pestering whatsoever before we’d even got into the auditorium.

And then there was the singing and dancing. I was out of my seat, bopping away, waving my flashing magic wand dangerously in the direction of the little old lady sitting next to me on more than one occasion. All the music was good, but the bit I liked best was that there was not one, not two, but *three* songs from Frozen!!! And one of them took place on a flying carpet which was really and truly up in the air and wafting around above us.

Which was not the only impressive bit of special effects. We had dragons spewing smoke, startling pyrotechnic explosions, a dragon shaped Cave of Wonders opening up before our very eyes, and a five minute lazar show just before the break. Multi coloured light shapes appeared in the air above us! MY VERY WORD!

Mama, who likes to peruse the programme in the interval, would like to give a big up to the business acumen and general logistical prowess of the production company, Jordan Productions, who run the Pantos in Stevenage at this point. She gathers that they have a whole stable of medium sized theatres for whom they put on these festive shows. Which means they can afford to splurge on the scenery and costumes, as they will definitely be getting their money’s worth when Aladdin, Cinderella and Robin Hood et al relocate round the circuit next year. So they do. You might be in the provinces, Mama, who is married to a snobby Moscovite, says, but the kit for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s Pantos is always, therefore, very good. Mama’s money for next year’s Panto, looking at the offerings at the other locations and her imperfect memory of what has gone before, is on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to her hometown next year, with an outside bet on Beauty and the Beast.

It’s probably the retro magic tricks which swung it for Mama this time though. Mama, child of the 70s that she is, likes seeing young women cut in half. I was less certain and needed reassuring that no permanent harm would come to her.

Mama was also impressed by the singing. The problem with Panto, she says, is that one of the requirements is to have actors you have actually heard of in the lead roles. This, she tells me, does not always make for a happy earful, as most of the ones who come to Stevenage used to work in soap operas. Especially, Eastenders.

Which is not particularly known for its fabulous musical numbers, apparently.

But this year Aladdin and friends had actual voices. Even the chappie from Eastenders. A Panto with a successful three part harmony is thing of beauty, Mama says. Almost better than the time they had Davy Jones from the Monkees. But not quite.

Especially the during the singalong. Thank god – they provided the words this year, Mama will never forget the shame of trying to belt out ‘There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…’ order to win the deadly serious singing competition between the two halves of the audience without knowing one of the lines. Never assume, Panto people, never assume…

Aladdin at Stevenage Poster

So. Basically, Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre is in most ways one of the better of Stevenage’s always enjoyable Pantos, and is extremely good value compared to the ones at the London theatres to boot. It’s running to 25th January, so there is still time to get down there and shout ‘it’s behind you’ at every available opportunity for reasons I do not really understand if you so wish.

Oh yes you do, oh no I don’t, oh yes you do. Says Mama, incomprehensibly.

Photo credit: I have used the official poster for Jordan Production’s Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre. Clicking on the image will take you to the page where it appears on their website.

More Information

Gordon Craig Theatre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about audience participation in pantomimes.

Address: Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1LZ

Times: Various, including afternoon and both early and later evening performances.

Tickets: Currently £15.50 per seat

By train: Stevenage station is right opposite the theatre, although Mama is genuinely sad to report the theatre is no longer the striking eyesore landmark it once was when covered with large yellow bubbles. There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour (other directions are available).

Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

By bus: You are just in time to be able to catch one of the last 797 coaches from Victoria to Stevenage before the service is discontinued. The journey takes about 1 and a half hours. Other bus routes from different starting points are available.

By car: Stevenage is famous for its cycle paths (Oh no it isn’t, oh yes… Lets not, Mama eh?), but has extensive and relatively cheap parking all around the theatre. Stevenage itself is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). You can come from the other way too.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

The Great London Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014

“I’ve got a treat for us today,” said Mama. Toys, we thought. A trip to the zoo, we got even more exited. Maybe even lunch at Macdonald’s. Lunch at MacDonald’s, with a Happy Meal toy at the zoo?

No.

“We’re going to look at Christmasy shop windows around London!” Said Mama.

Mama thinks we should be more into walking. She’d like it to be walking around wild open spaces, preferably upwards towards the top of a smallish mountain, but our big city is curiously lacking in really large hills in the middle of nowhere so sometimes she makes do with the highways and byways of central London.

She recognises that we are less than keen on rambles with no discernible point. Thus the idea of the Great Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014 was born. Won’t it be fun, Mama put to us, to go and look at all the festive offerings around town? Father Christmas and His reindeer! Tinsel!! Baubles!!! Cute winterproof animals!!!! High calorie foodstuffs carved into the shape of Christmas trees!!! Snooooooooooooooooow! Twinkley lights!!!! TOYS!!!!! And other such heartwarming scenes of rampant commercialism.

We were a bit dubious and had to be bribed with the promise of actually being allowed into a shop to look at overpriced plastic tat. Papa was a bit dubious too but Mama said he could have dinner in Chinatown, so he was won round. Babushka, well, I am not sure what Babushka thought but she came along anyway.

We started off at the John Lewis on Sloan Square. Penguins! Can’t go too far wrong with penguins in amusing positions Mama thought.

John Lewis and knitting penguins at Christmas

The ones with underwear on their heads were a particular hit with us children.

John Lewis and underwear penguins at Christmas

Mama felt it was a bit minimal and lacking in your actual jolly sparkly decoration. But then she managed to go the whole Christmas period without seeing That Advert and so is probably missing something.

John Lewis and yet more penguin action at Christmas

Harrods, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint Mama. You want a giant Santa with moving flying reindeer toting prominently placed dolly Elsa from Frozen? YES MAMA WE CERTAINLY DO! ELSA! LETITGOHEREISTANDLETITGOLETITGOLETITGOLETITGO! Sorry, where were we?

You want rotating men with antlers on their bowlers, despite the fact that Papa felt it was a potentially controversial reference to Joseph as a cuckold (whatever that is)?

Harrods and an odd choice of headgear at Christmas

 

You want miniature mousey dioramas with ACTUAL FALLING SNOW? Which admittedly were far too high up the wall for me, but then what are parents for?

Harrods where mice are definitely striring at Christmas

You want inadequately dressed women in chilly-looking forests? A giant clock? Handbags? Harrods had ’em all.

Harrods Happy New Year

Not sure what the rainbow stripy clothes in the window at the end have to do with the nativity, but I am young and some of the references go over my head. They were lovely and bright though so its all good.

We went into Harrods. Mama normally enjoys a good poke around this fabulous emporium of really REALLY expensive stuff. And the toilets. But on this occasion it was very very busy and not so much fun. I spent a lot of time being firmly towed through a huge wall of bodies (well, legs) as Mama and Papa tried to find the Christmas bit with only a brief pause to contemplate the price of caviar and enjoy the tiling in the food hall. Harrods, it seems, is large and somewhat labyrinthine, if also exceedingly shiny. When we eventually found the Christmas area, it was smaller than expected, although that might have been the effect of so many people. It did have an excellent advent calendar in the form of a porcelain dolls house where every door concealed another delicate Wedgewood ornament. A snip at many thousands of pounds. For some reason, us trying to play with it stressed Mama and Papa right out and we exited without going up to the toy floor. If you decide to take a look inside Harrods during peak Christmas shopping days with small children, Mama recommends going straight there, having worked out your route ahead of time. Or just giving the inside a miss altogether.

It’s certainly worth a wander around at some point, mind.

Mama and I wanted to look at the Harvey Nicks windows, but we were bundled onto the bus by the menfolk at this point so only just caught a glimpse as we shot past at the best speed a double decker caught in Knightsbridge traffic can manege. Lovely lighting, lovely dresses, lovely colourful trees is about all I can tell you.

Instead we headed for Fortnum and Mason, which, according to the windows, sells food. Very very beautiful food. Very beautiful food, all frosty and glittery and magical. We particularly liked the Christmas puddings, although I think my Wonderful Big Brother might have preferred the robins.

Fortnum and Mason, Christmas puddings and robins

Mama was also taken by the silver sleigh and the vodka. She must have been thirsty.

Fortnum and Mason, the sliver sleigh at Christmas

But having learned from our Harrods visit, we didn’t go inside. Mama says the national beverage they sell isn’t all that anyway – her Russian visitors usually prefer Yorkshire Tea. This does not bode well for the chocolates, however fabulous they look.

Onto Regent’s Street, which Mama had been planning to miss in favour of the more attractive and considerably less busy back alleyways. We overruled her because of the toy shop. Called Hamley’s, apparently. It’s a very popular toy shop is Hamley’s. Mama is not entirely sure why because aside from the demonstrators and the opportunity to play with some of the merchandise, there doesn’t seem to be that much here than you can get anywhere else where you can accomplish your spending without the risk of being trampled underfoot by three thousand maurauding small people and their six thousand pursuing parents.

Hamleys at Christmas

I think Mama is still in mouring after they shut down the massive MASSIVE department store in central Moscow called Detskii Mir (Children’s World). A whole floor of Barbies she tells me. And a full scale working carosel on the main floor. Allegedly it is due to reopen, but Mama is suspicious it will not be the same.

We have not had the pleasure, and are entirely entranced by the hawkers and hands on opportunities. We are also oblivious to Mama’s panic as she tries to keep both of us in view while many many pretty things beckon us this way and that in an environment we are much better at wiggling our way through than she is. However, luckily for the success of the outing, nobody got lost, suffocated or had an epic strop when refused immediate gratification of our consumer whim, although it was a close run thing when Big Brother found the Steiff cuddly animals section.

Next up, Liberty, with a cursory glance towards what Mama thinks are the most fun street Christmas lights. Who doesn’t like a giant Santa face decorated with headphones?

Carnaby Street at Christmas

Mama also really likes Liberty, which she thinks is the genuinely eccentric old money cousin to Harrods brash neovaux rich extravagance. Unfortunately for her, we were starting to get hungry at about this point and so did not take to the ship themed windows at all.

Liberty saw a number of ships sailing in

Mama managed to persuade us to briefly look in on Oxford Street and its floaty light balls, but we were soon retreating at full pelt towards the promise of noodles and spring rolls in China Town.

China Town at Christmas

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Tantrums averted all round, we were ready for another leg, which is how we found out they have a small funfair on Leicester Square. If you don’t fancy the crowds of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, this is a good alternative, especially if you like carousels, which Mama definitely does. There was also an excellent rollercoaster for small people and Papa had obviously let his sticky sweet pork balls go to his head too as he had a go at the archery. He nearly won too!

Leicester Square at Christmas

Then it was on to Trafalgar Square and the very tall but somewhat austerely decorated Norwegian pine tree, the traditional Christmas sound of busked bagpipes, and what Papa says is a very British nativity scene. See the woman doing all the difficult childcare work while the man lolls around chewing a straw? What is it with the incompetent Papa meme in this country, he would like to know. Of course, the nurses at the London hospital where Mama gave birth to my Wonderful Big Brother did single him out for special praise as an exemplary model of clued up fathering in Mama’s medical notes. But since they did this for changing a nappy without any special fuss or needing assistance, I am not sure what side of the argument this falls on. Mama says, you know your society is in trouble when a casual glance at adverts on Russian TV show a more equitable parenting lifestyle than the ones here. I think that’s a bit political for the Christmas episode of the blog, so all I will say is that we ran wildly around the fountains for a bit and then got the bus home.

Trafalgar Square and a very tall tree at Christmas

All in all I would say that as a thrilling day out for the under tens, going to look at Christmas windows isn’t as exciting as Mama thought it would be, although we did enjoy Christmas tree spotting, a sport which we carried on enthusiastically throughout the holiday period. Mama thinks that perhaps having some kind of additional bingo game incentive (the team that fills their score card of festive items first wins a chocolate reindeer!) might help, and that if you have less of an aversion to starting Christmas in November than she does then that might be the time to do it.

And next year they might have a fourteen foot Santa climbing up Selfidges while flinging sweeties to the children below. You can always hope.

Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Says Alice.

Quite why Mama, who spent a large number of her formative years buttonholing people and ranting about the evils of the monarchy, should so frequently find herself in front of Buckingham Palace watching some kind of royal pagent is something of a mystery, although what I say is that if you don’t support your local princesses, who will be there when you need birds sung to, fancy pink dresses worn or virtual strangers married?

Mama likes to pretend that she is on her way somewhere and it is the quickest way up from Victoria to Piccadilly, but I am not convinced that this explains how she has pitched up there for things like 71 gun salutes fired in a particularly chaotic but difficult to achieve manner, views of the entire Royal Family standing on the balcony mugging at the crowd, and more than one fly past including everything from very old bombers through bright red planes trailing coloured smoke to modern fighters.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
Says Alice.

About the only thing she has not turned out for, apart from most of the Jubilee celebrations, which wasn’t her fault as she tried to go to them all, but managed to get thoroughly rained on, choose the wrong place to stand, spend the duration hunting for the rest of her party or just turn up late with impressive regularity, was the relatively recent royal wedding.

She insisted on watching it on TV instead, much to our bored amazement. I hadn’t entered my pink phase then, and to be honest, even if I had, Kate is insufficiently blonde.

Mama claims that she finds it amusing that despite how very much in the public eye they are, none of the Royals are really all that good a behaving like celebrities, particularly when it comes to making sure their profile is in the right light at all times.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him all the same,”
Says Alice.

William in particular has terrible posture she says, although Papa says that this is how you tell he is an aristocrat rather than middle class like Kate. Only someone that in-, sorry, well-bred can get away with slouching his way through his own wedding ceremony on national TV while his lowly future wife sits up ramrod straight, knees elegantly together, hands delightfully folded in her lap.

Commenting on the finer nuances of the class system. Oh dear. I think Papa may have spent too long in the UK and gone native.

Huh. Mama is making choking sounds in the corner. I think she might disagree.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Says Alice.

Anyway, we have not, thus far, actually done the regular Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from start to finish, and so jumped at the chance when one was presented to us in the form of accompanying an American friend recently.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

The Changing of the Guard, is also known, to Mama’s inexplicable amusement, as Guard Mounting. It basically consists of one group of soldiers taking over, wait for it, guard duty from another. Quite why this needs two bands, lots of spectators and 45 minutes I do not know, but Mama says it is tradition. Tradition sounds expensive. Mama says, probably not when you consider the tourist trade as a whole.

We approached through St James’ Park. There’s a particularly well-placed bridge from which everybody should get their first view of Buckingham Palace looking whitely elegant, framed by trees, reflected in the water, peeping modestly out from behind the glorified traffic island topped by a socking great gold leaf cover statue of somebody or another.

Buckingham Palace from St James park

You can also pick up a coffee from the refreshment vans in the two park corners nearest the palace. You will need this to fortify you for the wait. We got there at around 10.30. The action does not really start until 11.15. Despite this, what Mama now realises are probably the prime spots directly in front of the very high wrought iron railings looking onto the forecourt of the Palace, and the very top steps of the roundabout-cum-Victoria memorial were already pretty fully occupied. If you are wanting to see absolutely everything, you are going to have to get there even earlier or develop very sharp elbows indeed.

Buckingham Palace

We declined to engage in pushing and shoving. Instead we opted for a front row position overlooking the road just off the right of the main gates and settled down to wait. At this point Mama recommends taking along someone who is an entertaining conversationalist. Which she had done. So that was her sorted.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Says Alice.

Fabulous for her, not so great for me, but luckily for Mama the coffee kiosks also sell ice cream. You might be thinking that half ten is a little early for ice cream, but it provided an excellent distraction for a good ten minutes, and then the clean up operation was also extensive. After that there was the fun of watching the police horses, in gloriously plentiful supply, who obligingly came and stood right in front of me on a number of occasions while their rider shouted instructions at the crowd. Mainly to do with keeping your valuables safe, I think. Mama was always going  to be  ok there – she always keeps a tight hold of me in crowds.

Police horse

And then the horseguards trotted past in full regalia! Was this it? Had the time come?

Household Cavalry

No. Apparently the were just going home after mounting the guard somewhere else.

After that highlight it was a bit of a long haul to the grand show.Every now and again a police horse would charge an errant pedestrian back behind the rope barriers. I started to get restless.

Finally, faintly, in the distance we heard a brass band playing. Louder and louder it got and closer and closer it came until the musicians hove into view, all bright red coats, shiny black boots and really really big furry hats.

And they marched straight into the entrance at completely the opposite side to where we were standing. We’d caught an intriguing glimpse, but not much more.

At this point, Mama realised that perhaps she should have done a bit of rudimentary investigation into how the Changing of the Guards works, and whether or not it is worth turning up if you don’t get there three hours ahead.

However, before guilt at being a monumentally bad hostess started to eat too much into her soul, a new band could be heard approaching. And this one swept past the first gate, past the middle gate and past us, with their big parpy trumpets, big booming drums, more big furry hats and big machine guns topped with bayonets, before diving into the final set of gates.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

What happens next Mama cannot tell you, as it was audio only for our little tourist group. Some shouting, the occasional stamping and some kind of battle of the bands were what reached us. Mama began to regret not insisting on crushing people’s toes in the pursuit of a good view, but I quite enjoyed balancing on the rope barrier like a circus princess, and then some kids came and sat on the curb in front of us, so I joined them, made friends and got to play with Mama’s camera.

Lots of bottoms in my world Mama discovered later.

A three year old view of crowds

Eventually, the Guards had done enough Changing. The middle gates opened and out marched the first group, executing a smart right as the did so and providing us with an excellent view of their retreating backs.

But we were wise to this behaviour now and hung on for the second wave, who, sure enough, turned the other way when they left and we got another splendid view.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, exit

The whole thing was over by about 12 noon.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Says Alice.

Mama decided to reward my quite good behaviour with a trip to the children’s play area in a well-placed nearby corner of St James’s Park. It’s one of those places which is split up into hidden zones. But there’s an excellent little picnic island with a clear view of the one and only exit and the whole playground is fairly compact. And I am, after all, over three now and not quite so prone to hurling myself into dangerous situations as before. Overall, Mama feels that the layout is acceptable. As for the equipment, I think it has a great sandpit, full of really big, slippy and hard rocks to jump on and off. Mama sees Prince Philip’s hand in this breach of health and safety rules for children. I also like the sunken slide area.

Basically, it’s clear that if you are on the parade route, wherever you stand, the Changing of the Guard is organised so that at some point, soldiers will stamp past you. The closer to the central gates you are, the more you will see of both groups of soldiers, but to be honest, Mama thinks that if you just have a casual interest in seeing the ceremony, you might want to turn up fairly late on and just take your chances in the crowd.

Everybody is pretty obliging about letting children through to the front, and as long as you don’t mind sitting on the curb, the odd Mama and Papa might be able to wiggle though too on the grounds that their kids might need protecting from flying police horse poo.

Another police horse!

We also noticed that a couple of people with wheelchairs had been positioned by the police horses on the edge of the road in a pretty decent spot, so that’s something to take into consideration if you have mobility requirements which might otherwise put you off going.

If you want to see the whole thing, Mama thinks you are looking at an arrival time of at least 10am. She thinks your children might need to be a bit older than me, or more stoic to put up with that.

Is it worth it? Take snacks, plenty of water, and lots of photos of the police horses and I’d say so. It was certainly an excellent start to our day of wandering through the rest of Central London.

 More Information

The Changing the Guard website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about how to work for the Queen.

Address: Buckingham Palace, London, SW1A 1AA.

Times: Every other day throughout the year, except April through July, when the guard changes every day. Cancellations are due to extremely bad rain, or other weather. The show starts at 11.15am and finishes around 12 noon.

Admission: Free

By Tube/train: Victoria (Railways station and Victoria line), Green Park (Victoria and Piccadilly lines) and Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly line).

By bus: Numbers 11, 211, C1 and C10 stop on Buckingham Palace Road.

By car: You are insane.

Covent Garden Piazza, London

Covent Garden was once the capital’s most modern and trendy square, then it morphed into a fruit and veg market, and finally became an extremely disreputable courtyard to London’s theatre district and the Royal Opera House on the corner. Mama says. She won’t say why it was disreputable. I suspect sugar is involved.

The banal edibles have since been sent off south of the river, and I have no idea what has happened to whatever the other thing was.

Fear not. The very 19th Century steampunk market building, all fancy metal girders, glass rooves and classical stone columned entrances has not gone to waste. It is now colonised by stalls selling upmarket handicrafts for the tourist trade, and rather boutiquey shops doing similar.

Steampunk street performer at Covent Garden

And the Apple store, although oddly enough this does not sell many Bramleys. Mama tries not to go in here. Shame, as they have a whole bunch of those wonderful touchscreens and seem happy to let us play with all of them. Mama is worried that she might get carried away and bet the house or something I gather. She can resist everything except temptation.

She quite fancies a nose round the Moomins emporium though.

Covent Garden market at Christmas

But generally, we prefer the bit of in the slightly more down-at heel area to the back. It has a higher proportion of trashy plastic toys and souvenirs, and there’s a much better chance Mama might buy us something.

Still, we don’t really come here to shop. We come here for the free(ish) entertainment. Covent Garden has living statues, highbrow buskers and street performers in various locations throughout the market going at it throughout the day, and we can quite easily spend an hour or two wandering from one to another before grabbing a bite to eat and going for a mooch around the back streets leading away from the piazza.

I find the statues a little freaky and alarmingly avaricious. They move when someone gives them money. I wouldn’t mind so much, but unlike so many throughout the rest of London, none of them are of horses.

Mama quite likes to check out the classical musicians playing in the sunken courtyard in the middle of the market. She lives in hope that one of them will be a solo bassist one day, but will put up with a really good soprano any day of the week. Lean on the balcony overlooking the performance or use this as your coffee break and occupy one of the tables down below.

My Darling Big Brother and I much prefer the circus acts. And we have seen so many of these shows now that Mama feels confident in providing a brief overview of what to expect because, well, because they do all have quite a lot in common with each other. I do not know if there is some kind of script which they have to conform to in order to get licences, but should you emulate one of our favourite Sunday afternoon outings you can feel confident that any given act will:

– Spin out one really good trick for a good twenty or thirty minutes – the length of each performance. This is quite a feat, Mama thinks. Anyone can wow with back to back showstoppers for ten minutes. Only the best can pull this off.

– Involve the artist at some point pretending s/he has never done (this version of) the trick before and has learned it off YouTube the night before.

– Include two of the elements of juggling with sharp implements, balancing on something precarious, magic or dragging the showperson’s body through a tennis racket. Clearly combining three things would be too much.

Juggling and balancing street performer at Covent Garden

– See people pulled out of the audience to take part. This is usually fairly burly middle-aged men or a particularly chippy looking twelve-year-old boy. If you are either of these and do not fancy taking part, stand well back is Mama’s advice. But do not get too complacent if you are a woman. Just as you think you are safe you will encounter the man on the pogo stick.

Pink street performer at Covent Garden

– Discover that at least one of these glamourous assistants has a hitherto undiscovered flair for comic timing. More props to the performers for really knowing their stuff.

– Have lots of heckling. Of the crowd by the act. Clap loudly, do whatever they tell you, and NEVER stand behind the performers or you will be publicly humiliated. Especially, do not stand behind the showperson with your back to the proceedings ignoring what is going on while wiping some dirt off your wife’s face. Says Mama, shuddering.

– Emotionally blackmail the crowd into parting with money. £20 is a standard amount, apparently, although the performer, who, you will find out repeatedly, does not get paid by Covent Garden authorities to be there, will reluctantly accept a fiver for the support of their seventeen children and their stalwart attendance in rain or shine. Mama tends to give a pound or two, but then she is mean.

Unicycling street Performer at Covent Garden

It’s great. And if you do get bored, there are pigeons to chase across the fabulous obstacle course of cobblestones, and also the London Transport Museum, which is one of the best museums for the under tens in London.

And! Public art. Currently, for example, someone has floated the whole market facade up in the air and then tethered it for our amusement. We seem to have just missed its unveiling last week, which is a shame, but it’s on until 24th October, so there’s every possibility we might get to marvel at it in person. It’s called ‘Take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’. No, I don’t know why either.

As for refreshments, there are plenty of cafes and food stalls, and also plenty more in the streets around, and many of these put out chairs on the square in the summer. Brought your own sandwiches? There’s a nice little spot in the grounds of St Paul’s church with some benches and room to run around away from the crowds. The toilets are close by there too, which Mama always feels is an important piece of information for those with preschoolers.

Mind you, Mama recommends that you step away from the square a bit so you can nosh at a pub which appeared in the novel ‘Murder Must Advertise’ by Dorothy L Sayers. Why? Because Lord Peter Wimsey spent time there. What other reason do you need? Says Mama.

This pub was in Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L

Anyway. Covent Garden is an excellent fair weather hang out for the whole family, with plenty going on throughout the year. It’s never dull! But it might be quite crowded.

More Information

Covent Garden’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about easy to perform magic tricks.

Address: 35 Cranbourn St, London WC2H 7AD

Opening: The area doesn’t close as such, although the shops and performers and so on keep normal London opening hours.

Price: The piazza is free, but you ought to bring some money for the performers.

By tube/ train: Covent Garden station is currently exit only and probably rammed due to repairs. Better to use the stations of Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Holborn, Temple of Tottenham Court Road, all within about a ten minute walk.

By bus: There are any number of buses which stop nearby. Look for ones going to Aldwych or Trafalgar Square for the closest drop offs.

By car: Do. Not. Go. By. Car.

Imperial Festival, Imperial College, London

On one level, you can see the Imperial Festival, when Imperial College London invites its alumni and the general public to come and see what research it has been doing lately, as just a series of fun activities for kids, albeit a LOT of activities, which are HUGE amounts of fun.

A scientist dips a hose funnelling dry ice fumes into washing up liquid
Fun! For everyone!

While we were there we stuck our hands into bowls of slimy snot; we had close up views of creepy crawlies such as a tarantula, some earthworms, a scorpion, and a giant millipede; we made water dance by rubbing the sides of a bowl; we crafted lollipop stick antibodies; we rode on a mechanical horse; we raced plastic tag boats powered by washing up liquid; we blow-painted pictures of our lungs; we set up dominoes and knocked them down to simulate a flu epidemic; we fished for good and bad bugs; we added to a chalk mural on the street; we used a xylophone to make slime dance; we extracted and admired our own DNA; we helped colour in a giant fresco; we fed computerised bacteria; we knitted arteries; we watched someone make bubbles out of frozen smoke.

And we certainly did not do all of the things on offer, but since they practically had to throw us out of the place about half an hour after the official ending of the event, that certainly wasn’t through lack of interest.

Children crafting lollipop antibodies
To the glitter glue table!

But the Imperial Festival is much more than that.

Swabbing the inside of your mouth to extract your own DNA
Budding scientists extract their own DNA

Magic, Mama thinks, is frustrating. The whole point of the tricks is that you don’t get to find out how it is done, and Mama hates this with a passion. Sense of wonderment? Bah. She says.

Science as done by the Imperial Festival, on the other hand, is great. This is because while the many many experiments, interactive demonstrations and straight explanations are, to Mama, pretty indistinguishable from magic at first glance, the whole point of them is to make the inexplicable, ‘splicable, and what is more there were actual researchers on hand she could quiz until she had total satisfaction. The activities were, in fact, well chosen to provide a gateway to the research and did indeed serve as excellent conversation starters for small people and big people alike.

Creepy crawlies in tanks
We spent hours looking at the bugs, and when I say we, I mean my Bestest Big Brother

Given the sheer variety of topics on offer, it would be virtually impossible for nothing to fire the imagination enough to inquire further.

My Bestest Big Brother got to ask people who actually know the answers questions about germs, a topic he has been plaguing Mama with recently. Meanwhile Mama found herself fascinated by the Bacterial Nanotechnology stand even if she did blot her copybook by asking what the point of spending fifteen years refining technology so that scientists could see the mechanisms by which bacteria propel themselves in ever clearer detail actually was. She did rather enjoy the fact that this showed signs of developing into a spirited discussion amongst the researchers manning the stall themselves though.

But the clear win for the Imperial Festival’s overall inspirational quality is that my Bestest Big Brother has been devising and conducting experiments or at least observations, frequently involving copious amounts of water (funny that), but sometimes designed to answer a question about animals, all week since.

In addition, while Mama did not do a headcount of girl researchers/ students vs boy researchers/ students, certainly any child attending this event would not for a moment get the impression that science and engineering are boys’ subjects.

Admittedly, you probably have to be a bit older than me to get the most out of it. I did not have a clue what was going on. But I still enjoyed it (once I’d had a nap). Water play, woohoo! Etc. Although I do not know why all the adults were smirking as I used my stick to push the boat across the bowl rather than whatever the heck they meant me to do. The thing moved! What more do you want?

Anyway. Basically, Mama fully intends to find out when next year’s Imperial Festival is on, and move heaven and earth to attend. She also plans to lobby Bestest Big Brother’s school about attending the pre-festival schools’ programme and sell it enthusiastically to anyone who has kids from about five upwards, and, in fact, anyone who doesn’t have kids too.

It ran into the lateish evening on the Friday, so adults should have a clear shot at the stalls without having to fight their way through a wall of small fascinated bodies. You could go on the tours round the labs and attend some talks too. Just don’t tell Mama, she’ll only be jealous.

A steampunkesque robot dragon
A GIANT RED ROBOT DRAGON!

If you need any more inducement, the food options were pretty good too, if a little dampened by showers and driving winds, with some extensively stocked stalls and a pop-up pub. While you are eating (or drinking) you can watch the belly dancers. Or listen to the band. Or the other band. Or the other other band. Or the choir. Or watch the street dancers. Or the dance theatre troupe. Plenty of uncomplicated entertainment. I bopped along. I cavorted. I got underfoot. I ate chips. Hours of fun.

Highly recommended. #ImpFest 2015 awaits. Go!

More Information

The Imperial Festival’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about what do scientists know anyway: systematic reviews and meta analysis.

Address: Imperial College, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, SW7 2AZ.

Opening: Friday 9th and Saturday 10th May 2014

Price: Free!

By tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to the entrance to the campus.

By bus: The 360 stops right outside the campus. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (five minutes away). 

By car: Don’t bother. Mama says. Emphatically.

The Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow

Russians take their circus very seriously. If you watch the Russia’s Got Talent (which is actually called Fifteen Minutes of Fame, and once had someone called Mikhail Gorbachov as a judge. I could care less but Mama thought this was hysterical, so I assume he must have been a particularly dishy celebrity or something back in Mama’s day) you will very soon notice that by far the largest category of performers are doing some kind of circus act. Mama thinks they are very good too, but then Mama’s idea of amateur circus is people throwing wobbly juggling balls about and, generally, missing. University does sound fun.

Whatever the reason, Moscow has not one but two large permanent circus buildings and we went to the Old Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, also known as the Nikulin Circus after one of its most famous clowns/ directors when we were in town this past summer.

A lot of what we saw was the sort of modern take on acrobatics popularised by the Cirque du Soleil. Mama tells me. Trapeze artists who swing upside down low over the audience; people dangling from long swatches of material; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and then unwinding with a flourish; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and unwinding themselves with a flourish while swinging upside down low over the audience; people wrapping other people up and down in long swatches of material while they all swing upside down low over the audience with their legs at an impossible angle. That sort of thing. Also, large men tossing a couple of tiny girls from one metal bar to another and a couple of lads performing tricks at the top of ladders. Very exciting, especially when one of them fell off. If it doesn’t go wrong occasionally, Mama says, you don’t know how difficult it is. Having seen the spill, I suspect that it was all very difficult indeed.

Lads on ladders

Mama also thinks the high wire act, half of which was done without a net or wires was pretty thrilling, especially as the performance area is well-designed to be both spacious and intimate and even from the cheap seats you get a really good view of the slight twitch of concern that crosses the burly walker’s face as he slides across the wire carrying five of his family and somebody wobbles.

I missed that bit. I was asleep. I also missed the set up, done in the interval, which was almost as much fun as the act itself (apparently). A couple of men swarming easily up and down ropes to secure the fastenings and bouncing casually up and down on the wire itself to test its strength. Splendid. Mama says. She was quite pleased to be stuck under a snoring child while the others queued for the toilet.

Not that my falling asleep was a reflection on my enjoyment – I was jet lagged and put off the snooze as long as I could. Mama was initially a bit dubious about taking me to a show. She does not have good memories of taking my Glorious Big Brother to places where he needed to sit down quietly for extended periods of time before he was about three. However, since both Papa and Babushka were also going she reasoned that the adults could work in shifts to walk me up and down the corridor while the rest of our party were enjoying the turns. This turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the fact that the show was very very long, while I was awake I was entirely rapt. As were the others. None of us noticed the time until we were out at the end.

Nikulin Circus performers

Mama even enjoyed the clowns, which is not a sentence she thought she’d be typing ever. They made considerable reference to the traditional clowning elements of mime, pratfalls, squirting the audience with water, much business with unicycles and very big shoes, but much updated and very slick. Mama actually cried with laughter during the mass clapalong section, choreographed by the head clown, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that a circus in Russia is not the place to go if you have serious scruples about performing animals. Mama generally doesn’t, to be honest. It would be a mistake to think that all circus animals are mistreated simply by virtue of being in a circus, especially in one of the foremost professional performance spaces in Russia.

And generally they stick to the sorts of trainable animals that work for their keep all over the world.

So the bird act was fun, but similar to the ones we’ve seen in high minded conservation projects in the UK, although generally the trainers there are not dressed as pirates; the bareback riders were impressive but slight compared to their extremely sturdy shire-esque mounts; Mama is reasonably sure it’s easier to get dogs to jump over things, even other dogs, than sing; the horses going through dressage moves without actually being in physical contact with their trainer were beautiful, but we watched the same thing in Hyde Park just this week, albeit without the music and the shiny harnesses; and surely elephants carrying people is not that much of an issue even if they are wearing very little apart from sequins. The people, that is. Well, there might have been sequins involved with the elephants too.

Admittedly, an elephant standing on a ball, a genuinely awesome moment, is a bit out of the ordinary, but Mama is prepared to extend the trainers a bit of trust regarding that trick although that might be because secretly, Mama was thrilled to bits with the steampunk Jules Verne theme to the finale, even if the costume changes fro the dancers got a bit dizzying after a while.

An elephant on a ball

However, when Mama walked into the spacious (and very Soviet) reception area (all gleaming marble floors and fancy chandeliers overlaying what would otherwise be a very functional sort of layout) she was quite shocked to see the tiger waiting quietly have its photo taken with the kids. Also, the bear, the elephant, the leopard, the kangaroo, the toucan and the monkeys. Mama has been spending a lot of time in the UK recently, but even so she thinks that she would never be perfectly comfortable with this part. She consoles herself with the thought that the circus’s schedule is not demanding even in the high season, but, of course, your mileage may vary. Mama thinks that if you are going to boycott the circus over the animal issue, then this should be your reason why.

An elephant on display

Depending on your decision, by and large the Nikulin Circus is one of the places to take the under tens in Moscow. And the over tens. You don’t even have to spend a fortune. The performers do project the best bits towards the 3000 rouble punters at the ‘front’. But because it is, after all, a circus and so the performance space is in the round and since all the artists, human and animal, spend quite a bit of the time racing, swinging or flying around the circle, Mama does not plan to be spending any more money next time we go. Look out for ticket selling kiosks all around town for the better deals.

And believe me, if I have anything to say about it, we will be going again.

More Information

The Nikulin Circus’ website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making your own juggling balls.

Address: 13, Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow, Russia, 127051

Performance times: 7pm Thursday to Sunday, with additional 11am and 2.30 pm performances at weekends.

Price: From 400 roubles (£7) to 3000 roubles (£52.50). Children under six are free if they sit on your lap.

By Metro: Tsvetnoy Boulevard/ Цветной бульвар

By other means: Just get the Metro. It’s fab.