Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Bringing the countryside to the Capital: London's City Farms (Vauxhall)

London often feels very far removed from the countryside I grew up in. However, dotted around around London are 15 city farms - offering urbanites the chance to experience a working farm and help introduce children to farm animals. Staying close to home in South London, Vauxhall City Farm was the first on our list...

Vauxhall City Farm - Riding School
Located just around the corner from The Oval, Vauxhall City Farm is squeezed into an essentially residential area. Naturally limited by space in an urban environment, the site is efficiently divided between a petting zoo, an ecology garden, stables and, across the road, a riding school. Initially excited by the obligatory rabbits and guinea, which you could stroke through the wire fence, we moved on to much greater things: horses. Whilst perhaps not the highlight of the farm for me, Vauxhall City Farm's horses strongly support the learning-driven initiative. Offering partially subsidised riding lessons for children and the disabled, as well as Pony Club Stable Management classes, the farm's integrity does not lie predominantly with the animals labelled as tourist attractions. 

Designed to teach children about an unspoilt natural environment, the ecology garden is complete with a pond, a bog and a wormery. Sitting in this wild garden, suddenly it seemed very strange that we were only 10 minutes from Central London - but perhaps this distance from the bustling city is what makes city farms such unique experiences.

Imitating this happy chap who loves the ecology garden

As we visited the farm at the beginning of March, I was insistent that I wanted to see lambs. In fact, lambs were the only thing I wanted to see - lots and lots of tiny, springy lambs. And these ones did not disappoint. Greeted by a handful of the smiliest, speckliest lambs I've ever seen, they were extremely tame and we were able to stroke them through the bars (but they were much too excitable to hang around for long!)

However, my favourite part of our Vauxhall City Farm visit was the goats. Shameless and relentless, the goats jumped up onto the railings as visitors walked by in hope of a snack! Living in an enclosure with a shifty looking alpaca, the goats were extremely friendly and gentle - genuinely excited to see people, and more than happy to be stroked (...even if it was only triggered by a constant yearning to be fed!) This goat was our favourite, but we weren't quite sure why he only had one horn...

We moved on to see ducks, geese and a turkey gathered around the pond. And next, a couple of happy, snuffly pigs. Finishing off in the vegetable garden, Vauxhall City Farm leads an active horticultural group - with evidence of a multiplicity of different vegetables being grown on the farm.

As well a fantastic collection of really well looked after animals, it was the riding volunteers, and co-operative vegetable gardens that helped give this farm a real community feel. We left, even as visitors, feeling like we'd been part of a really positive local initiative; one which educates as well as entertains, and provides an authentic rural experience for those living in an urban centre.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dirty Dancing, Piccadilly Theatre

At a loss one evening in London, an impromptu decision to go and see Dirty Dancing was a brilliant one.

Playing at the Piccadilly Theatre, in the heart of the West End, 'The Classic Story On Stage' only has a presence in London until March 2014 before launching its second UK tour in recent years. The bustle of Piccadilly Circus offers an element of charm and glamour that you don't quite get with theatres outside of London. The theatre and its location becomes, in itself, an experience - prefiguring the charisma and spirit of the show.

I don't know why I hadn't seen Dirty Dancing before now. As a regular theatre go-er and a long-time fan of Ardolino's Dirty Dancing, I'm unsure why the stage production had never been a priority for me. Perhaps I was worried that it wouldn't compare: that the stage Catskill Mountains wouldn't compare, and that Patrick Swayze was the only Johnny!

But, from the second the show opened, it was set to be impressive. It's 1963 and we're introduced to the Catskill Mountain Holiday Camp. Baby (Jill Winternitz) is holidaying with her family - and they are surrounded by a group of doting holiday entertainers, including Johnny Castle (Paul-Michael Jones) the 'bad-boy' dance instructor. Unimpressed by the dire range of organised activities, Baby acquaints herself with the Camp staff. Baby and Johnny's relationship is, initially, an uncertain one. And then a languorous one. And then an inevitable one.


 Jill Winternitz's Baby was everything it was supposed to be: naïve, endearing and admirably ballsy. Coupled with Paul-Michael Jones' suave performance of Johnny Castle, the two established a really strong lead - from which the entirety of the production developed. However, the real star of the show for me was Charlotte Gooch. Penny is a notoriously difficult character to play. Gooch entwined the peppy showgirl with a suddenly vulnerable expectant mother impeccably, offering a compelling sensitivity - that which is so hard to portray in such a large theatre. James Coombes should also be recognised for his extremely honest depiction of Mr Houseman, Baby's father. Establishing himself as a character who can be trusted, Coombes' Mr Houseman proved a sincere voice of reason, grounding the musical in authenticity.

As far as musicals go, Eleanor Bergstein's script offers relatively few songs, at least relative to the amount of dialogue. Though often criticised for this adaptation, I think I preferred it. It enables Dirty Dancing to offer something that other musicals tend to lack: a really solid storyline. This creates an environment through which the audience can truly empathise with Penny, and genuinely root for Baby and Johnny's happy ending.

By the very nature of the musical, of course the dialogue is intercepted by a plethora of exciting dance numbers.  Kate Champion's choreography is impressive in its scale and stamina, if not slightly predictable in its construction. Despite a cast of undeniably skilled dancers, my main criticism would be that Charlotte Gooch (Penny) is relied upon to carry the large majority of dances. In the grand scheme of the production however, all dance numbers are remarkably slick and fast-paced.

I wanted to love Dirty Dancing on stage as much as I loved the film. And I almost did. Tipple successfully captured the outwardly rosy, but implicitly troubled, tone - aided by an extremely talented and powerful cast. Combined, this produced a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating performance. 

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