March is a month of exhibitions, as London staggers out, blinking, into Spring, and people start going out for pleasure again. An extra-long Around Town this month, everyone, as there’s just so much going on I can’t decide what to leave out…
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Showstoppers such as Vogue 100: A Century of Style, at the National Portrait Gallery, are always going to be big. Ten decades, 2,000 issues, and scores of images, this exhibition is as glossy, gorgeous and chic as they come. There are twelve rooms of it, each packed with famous models, pop stars, socialites and photographers. It’s a guaranteed success and it’s going to be packed. Book ahead, be prepared for crowds–and steel yourself for serious Wow.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, to 22 May 2016, sponsored by Leon Max. Nearest tubes: Leicester Square and Charing Cross.
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Royal fashion never goes out of style. We may spend column inches discussing the Duchess of Cambridge’s every last jacket now, but Royal ladies have always turned heads. My own personal favourite has always been Her Majesty the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.
Margaret, a young woman, full of energy and rebellion, broke every rule going.
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Post-war Britain was grey and drab, still crippled after years of rationing but Margaret wasn’t having any of it. As a younger sister, she wasn’t obliged to ‘buy British’ and happily went to Paris to experience Christian Dior and his youthful, extravagant New Look.
Kensington Palace has been presenting examples of Royal clothing in their Fashion Rules exhibition for some time, but it’s just been revamped to show an entirely different part of several collections.
There are many examples of dresses worn by Her Majesty the Queen and Diana, Princess of Wales at Fashion Rules: Restyled but for me, it’s Margaret’s gorgeous dresses that hit the mark.
Tiny waists, giant skirts, saucy strapless tops (the Queen actually had straps sewn into one of Margaret’s most daring frocks) plus accessories, from her trademark sunglasses through a mink cape to a headscarf designed special for her by Dior as a ‘thank you’ for helping to bring the New Look to the UK.
Don’t miss the stunning cream duchess silk halter-neck ball gown the princess wore for her 21st birthday party.
Fashion Rules: Restyled is now open, and included as part of the entrance fee to Kensington Palace. Nearest tubes: High Street Kensington and Bayswater.
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One of the dresses, a staggeringly lovely pink satin and black lace strapless number, was worn by Margaret for a visit to the theatre to see Guys and Dolls.
I can’t swear I looked anything like as glamorous when I saw the most recent version of this evergreen musical, but it didn’t stop me loving it as much as Margaret did. This particular production is a transfer from the famous Chichester Festival, which virtually never puts a foot wrong.
Jamie Parker’s cheeky Sky Masterson has an impish charm that seems, at first, superficial, but develops as we follow his progress underground so that by the time he makes that famous dice roll in Luck Be a Lady we truly believe everything rides on it.
David Haig, as Nathan Detroit, manages to be both hangdog and goofy at the same time. His tragi-comic relationship with Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide has a charm that goes beyond the production – the pair are perhaps better known as the comic lovers in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
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In fact my only gripe is a sin of omission. It’s quite clear Lorna Gayle, who plays Gen. Cartwright, has one hell of a voice, and during the showstopper Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, she threatens to let rip on her own – which she’s never given. I’d have loved to see an extra chorus devoted just to her.
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I guarantee you will love Guys and Dolls. It’s on at the Savoy Theatre until 12th March, then transferring to the Phoenix from March 19. Nearest Tube: Charing Cross.
However we may be seduced by the odd bright day, the evenings still draw in. If you can’t beat it, though, you can at least celebrate it, and the Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House is just about the best spectacle I’ve seen in months.
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Chiswick House is better known as a fabulous Palladian mansion, surrounded by formal landscape gardens with temples and lakes, but until 6th March it plays host every evening from 5.00pm to an incredible illuminated cavalcade of Chinese lanterns, including a 66-metre dragon, a veritable Savannah of animals, terracotta warriors, outsized spring flowers, birds, lotuses, vases and temples, every single one of them exquisite, hand-built and with a personality of its own. Flamingos chatter, the Monkey King prances, goldfish burble and pandas tumble.
I took my father and sister. It was raining, and punishingly cold, yet we didn’t even notice. This ‘magical’ festival is enchanting. Seriously, folks, if you’re going to be in London on or before 6th March, drop everything and head west. Allow at least two hours to wander round everything; it’s huge – and very, very beautiful.
The Magic Lantern Festival is at Chiswick House Gardens until 6th March. Nearest tube: Turnham Green. Note: It's a 15 minute walk to the gardens from the underground station.
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While we’re on gorgeous festivals in the West of London, Kew is hosting its annual Orchid Festival. Normally I’d suggest visiting Kew in the summer months, but a combination of spring flowers (the weird weather this year has made snowdrops, daffodils, crocuses and aconites all bloom together) and a tropical house full of incredible orchids at their outstanding best makes the trip worthwhile.
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It’s in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, a modern, labyrinthine glasshouse easy to get lost inside, especially when it’s packed to the gunnels with some of the showiest flowers in the universe. Bold, brash and almost other-worldly, they are sometimes creepy, sometimes flashy, but always beautiful.
The Kew Orchid Festival runs to 6th March. Nearest tube: Kew Gardens
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Right at the other end of the scale, By Me: William Shakespeare, a Life in Writing at Somerset House in the Strand is a small but important exhibition of documents Shakespeare had a literal hand in.
We have so few things the Bard wrote himself that anything in his own hand is a treasured gem, allowed out of vaults for public display perhaps once in a generation. Here, in the kind of subdued lighting you might expect, are classic items, such as Will’s Last Will, in which he famously leaves his ‘second best bed’ to his wife, and court papers from a ‘theft’ in which the contents of one theatre were removed, by a gang possibly including Shakespeare himself, to create the Globe. There are other papers, too, such as those referring to Shakespeare being called to court, as a witness this time, over a neighbor’s dowry dispute.
Somehow seeing documents like these, William Shakespeare stops being that revered playwright high on a pedestal and starts to become human. There are crossings out, blotches, squiggles and even holes, where the papers have been nibbled by historical rats who didn’t care they were gnawing on history…
Four of the six known signatures by the Bard are on display in the basements at Somerset House.
It may not be as flashy as Vogue 100 or chic as Fashion Rules: Restyled, but as a piece of English (and World) literary history, it’s a landmark show.
By Me: William Shakespeare a Life in Writing is at Somerset House, at the east end of the Strand, until May 29th. Nearest Tube: Temple.
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Finally, Simon McBurney. He’s one of those actors who you know but you don’t know. He turns up in films as the ‘quirky oddity,’ often as the shifty character in the Harry Potter movies, The Theory of Everything and the Manchurian Candidate. He even wrote for Mr Bean.
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As the director of Theatre de Complicite, though, McBurney is even more respected and his production of The Magic Flute by the English National Opera at the Coliseum is just as crazy as you’d expect. For starters, the orchestra is at the same height as the actors, bringing them into the piece. Sometimes members of the orchestra actually take part, creating sound effects both expected – the flute or Papagano’s bells –and unexpected – an entire foley booth sits on one side of the stage providing noises for all. The other side has a chalkboard with a camera, where an animator draws the scenery in real time, projected onto the stage for the singers to inhabit.
McBurney’s is a wild, scary world, inhabited by terrifying, grabbing, reaching creatures of chaos and controlling, colourless characters of reason. Allan Clayton’s tremulous Tamino and Lucy Crowe’s (outstanding) Pamina tread a wary path between the two, with the less-than-helpful Papageno (a slightly underpowered Peter Coleman-Wright) as their unwilling accomplice.
Ambur Braid’s Queen of Night sits a little awkwardly (literally, she’s in a wheelchair, which could have been an interesting device, but somehow makes it a bit static), which has the curious effect of Sarastro (James Cresswell) being a more memorable character than usual, even if the black polo neck and long blond hair makes him look more like an Ikea furniture designer.
Inventive, powerful and, above all, fun, this production sits on the slightly creepy end of Flutes, but perhaps because of that, is one of the most memorable I’ve seen.
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The Magic Flute is at the Colisseum, St Martin’s Lane, on selected dates to 19th March. Tubes: Leicester Square and Charing Cross.
Gosh, there is so much going on in London at the moment - this can only be a cross-section; my own pick. As the city hots up towards Spring I can only suggest: keep coming, keep an eye out and keep enjoying this incredible city.