Guest post by AWC member Sue Monshaw
I made my London stage debut last December at the King's Head Theatre in the Charles Court Opera production of King Tut’s Tomb. My performance in the role of “stunned tourist” was touted as “good fun,” by one particularly drunk audience member and “smashing, darling,” by the tiny theatre’s manager and intermission snack seller. This was a very short run for my character, about 20 minutes to be precise, but the experience will last a lifetime and just might encourage me to try again this year.
The King's Head is located in the Islington section of London. To get to the theatre, it is necessary to cross the interior of the historic King's Head Pub itself. Jammed with inebriated people, this was no easy task as we dodged beer mugs passed overhead and left the ancient floorboards wet with the snow that had just begun falling outside. We emerged a bit disheveled, and entered a doorway cloaked in a velvet curtain. Inside the theatre, there is bench seating for about 75 people. Let’s call the space intimate as the stage is very close to the seats. There is no room for bulky coats or modesty. This audience would become our new best friends for the next few hours. We did not know that a prerequisite of attending such a performance is to have consumed many alcoholic beverages prior to the start of the show, which would prove problematic for me later.
The room was very close and I fought down my inner claustrobic. When the lights dimmed and the show began we quickly caught on that this intimacy was intentional and greatly added to the expected audience participation. We hissed at the villain and groaned in sympathy with the heroine. We laughed hysterically at the corny jokes and double entendres. There was twerking, hip hop dancing, rapping, arias and personal asides. We cheered wildly at the astonishing skill of the performers, who also happen to be classically trained in opera. We felt very much part of the experience and enjoyed it thoroughly.
King Tut was a pantomime production, which confused this theatre-going New Yorker because the word pantomime has a very different meaning in British vernacular. To the average American, pantomime refers to a soundless, brightly physical performance often done by someone dressed in a striped shirt, wearing white face make up and a beret. In merry olde England, a pantomime (or panto) is a theatrical musical Christmas season treat featuring clever dialogue, witty lyrics and physical comedy. Think Monty Python.
Usually based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or story, the panto features a series of characters including the dame (played by a cross dressing man), the main male character (played by a young woman), the main female character (played by a woman), a villain, and an animal or fantastical creature. King Tut featured a sassy camel who would periodically sing out looking for an audience response, “my hump, my hump, my (audience sings) sexy lady hump.”
images: Charles Court Opera
Why Christmas? Pantos may have evolved from the Tudor post-Christmas “feast of fools,” when a Lord of Misrule was chosen from a noble household in a role reversal where the servant played master of the manor for the day. Thus the entire household was turned upside down with the day’s lord demanding certain favors and making outrageous decrees. This was done all in good fun, of course, and evolved into the well-loved tradition of cross-dressing characters playing time honored stories encouraged by booing and singing audience members. As a holiday treat, many pantos are performed for family audiences with cleverly concealed political jabs and snarky social commentary disguised as silly jokes that make the kids giggle with delight. Other productions are aimed directly at adult audiences, no holds barred.
At intermission, the audience was encouraged to collect the drinks at the bar that they had ordered in advance and to buy an ice cream, oddly, the only refreshment on offer. It turns out that we have the Victorians to thank for this interval treat: it is quietly consumed, has no odor, appeals to all audiences. When we settled back into our places for the second act the energy level was high on the stage and in the audience. In addition to the audience participation, there can also be physical interaction between the actors and the folks in the seats. A common practice is a pie in the face or other slapstick element. In Tut, the camel would “spit” into the audience, drenching the first few rows. The play within the play here featured a game show contest where two audience members were called by name to join the actors onstage. Guess who was one of them?
Normally, I am not shy or nervous addressing a group, but in this case, I was completely out of character. My participation in this show, came as a total surprise and I was thoroughly stunned. My husband captured the whole, painful thing on video and I am stiff and sweating under the hot stage lights. The actors were enjoying my dismay and a few people in the front row yelled their encouragement to me while trying not to spill their drinks. Unfortunately for me, we were the only sober people in the room. I suspect I was chosen because I had phoned the box office earlier in the day to secure the last-minute tickets. I actually spoke to a human who may have recognized my non-native accent and shrewdly figured this would add to the fun.
My role was a participant on the game show which success would ultimately help get the time traveling characters back to the place they wanted to go. No pressure here, I could not fail. I flailed, I froze. The camel stood at my shoulder and fed me answers to the silly questions, his warm breath in my ear only adding to my discomfort. One of the game challenges featured a series of completely random items passing by a window cut into the set directly in front of my face. My task was to recall as many of these unrelated things as I could. Here the culture clash became downright bizarre as my brain struggled to recognize prawn crisps (shrimp flavored potato chips), a box of French letters (condoms), and Cadbury’s Dairy milk (chocolate bar), to name just a few. I was surprised to “win” and my prize was yet more agonizing time onstage as the group presented another game for me to blunder through. The drunkest woman in the first row gave me all the answers and inspiration I needed and I was finally released from my position centerstage, to loud applause. I was patted, touched and congratulated on my way back to my seat. I was overcome with delighted embarrassment, a very strange feeling indeed.
When I read the bios of the performers I was impressed to see that most of their credentials are loftier than this “of the people” show. They are accomplished serious performers in real life. Alys Roberts, a Welsh soprano, was absolutely adorable as young King Tut. Sporting gold lame, 1980s-era “Hammer” pants and a super sparkly blue Egyptian head dress, she behaved as a 20-something person would do, with energy and agility. When she opened her mouth to sing, what emerged was a sophisticated, elegant string of music that collided completely with what our eyes were telling us. It was obvious that the actors were having just as much fun as the lucky audience members. They chuckled in the wrong places, ribbed each other when a joke landed particularly well and cavorted across the stage with the silly delight of 10-year olds, unwatched by their parents.
I’m going back to the King's Head this year to see The Nativity Panto. This time, I’ll have my family in the audience and will hopefully remain anonymous to the stage manager. If our decidedly foreign accents are detected, I’m prepared to play the part of “wiser American ex-pat,” and will wear lighter clothing so as not to perspire so much under the hot lights and friendly scrutiny.
Susan Monshaw enjoys every moment of expat life in London. Most recently from NYC, she has lived in Paris, Tokyo, Connecticut and New Jersey. Susan is a writer, great lover of history, perpetual tourist, unrepentant eavesdropper and ardent watcher of people all around the world.
It’s different things to different people. It depends on who you ask.
For rough sleepers, it’s a safe and welcoming respite from the streets, a place to come for a warm meal, mental health counseling, and more. For the elderly, lonely and poor, it’s a place to connect and find comfort in a big city where they often feel forgotten.
For AWC volunteers, it’s an opportunity to serve others, widen perspectives, make new friends, and make a difference.
For Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, Senior Minister at the American International Church, the Soup Kitchen is about much more than the meals. “It’s not just a handout, it’s not just the clothes. It’s about a sense of community, a place to belong... And for many of us, it’s about missing them when they’re gone.”
Bonnie Garmus, AWC Activity Leader for the Soup Kitchen, shares her sentiments. “People come to the Soup Kitchen ostensibly for a meal, but also for warmth and companionship. While some struggle with mental issues or addiction problems, most of them are simply down on their luck. As one of the guests once told me, ‘The Soup Kitchen is one of the few places where I can go, enjoy a hot cup of coffee, and not be judged.’”
Although Bonnie works five days a week, she carves out time to volunteer there twice a month. She says she always looks forward to seeing AWC friends, Soup Kitchen staff and the many guests they serve. “I’ve been volunteering at the Soup Kitchen for nearly two-and-a-half years," she says, "and out of all the experiences London has to offer, this remains my favorite.”
Conversation with Bonnie: It’s about friendship and perspective
How has the Soup Kitchen changed since you started?
In the last year, the number of people who seek our help has doubled.
What’s the greatest need? How can people help?
We’re in dire need of men’s jeans, trainers, parkas, and backpacks. Gently used, clean—no holes! But we also need fresh recruits to help prepare food, serve food and coffee, take numbers for the Clothes Closet, and generally just dig in and help.
What strikes you the most?
You start realizing how thin that line is—how homelessness can happen to absolutely anyone. Some of our guests have been faced with horrific burdens through no fault of their own—bad luck, layoffs, war, human trafficking, illness, the death of a loved one. I’m always amazed at how optimistic many of them remain. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked us for simply being there—for smiling, taking their requests seriously, asking after their latest job application, checking in on their health, and especially, especially, for not judging them.
How has the Soup Kitchen affected you personally?
I count many of the guests I’ve met at the Soup Kitchen among some of my closest friends in London—which might sound implausible, but it’s true. You get to know people at their worst and it creates a bond that isn’t easily broken. A few weeks back, one of them waited patiently for his number to be called for the Clothes Closet, then once at the window, told me he didn’t really need anything. "I just came to see you and say hello." It made my whole day.
About the AWC and the Soup Kitchen
The Soup Kitchen feeds roughly 100 people, six days a week. Every other Monday (the busiest day of the week), AWC volunteers prep and serve coffee and soup followed by a warm meal for the 100-plus guests, followed by cleanup. It’s hard work, but also fun, and hugely appreciated. As one volunteer put it, “It feels good to feel useful.”
We need nine to ten volunteers each time: four or five to help serve in the cabin, one to call out Clothes Closet numbers, two to three in the kitchen, and one in the Clothes Closet. Join us!
Learn more about the Soup Kitchen here: amchurch.co.uk/soup-kitchen/
Twenty AWC members filled two long tables in Din Tai Fung, known for its dumplings, cult status and long queues to get in, last Thursday at noon. Many of us had never been there before, so it was a treat to have the whole thing organized by Eva, our longtime AWC activity leader and foodie friend.
The Covent Garden outpost of the Taiwanese restaurant chain did not disappoint! Along with dozens and dozens of xiao long bao, its famous Chinese soup dumplings, we enjoyed a variety of dim sum dishes.
At the end, Eva insisted we all try Din Tai Fung's signature dessert: salted egg-yolk custard lava buns. We're glad she did! They were amazingly good.
Stay tuned to the AWC Activities Calendar for upcoming Let's Do Lunch dates and locations.
Din Tai Fung to introduce its signature salted egg yolk custard lava buns to its London menu / Evening Standard, 8 May 2019
(includes a video of the making of the buns)
"The buns, which are decorated with a yellow stamp symbolising good fortune, are filled with a slightly salted, vibrantly yellow custard made with duck egg yolks. They get their unusual name from the way the warm liquid supposedly flows like lava when they are pulled apart."
Din Tai Fung London: Cult dumpling restaurant to serve vegan version of its xiao long bao / Evening Standard, 15 Oct. 2019
SquareMeal Review of Din Tai Fung Covent Garden / Bronze Award
"Din Tai Fung was the most-searched restaurant on SquareMeal in 2018 – not bad for somewhere that didn’t open until December. The Taiwanese dumpling specialist is famous for making what many say are the world’s best xiao long bao, for its Michelin-approved Hong Kong outpost and for having 150 outlets spanning Asia, Australia, North America – and now London, where it has become famous primarily for the size of the queues. It’s worth noting, though, that if you arrive off peak (4pm on a Monday in our case) you'll be able to walk straight in, with only Asian students and curious tourists for company."
Our May gathering at the Royal Albert Hall received much applause from members. In addition to a generous buffet lunch, attendees were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the magnificent 5,200-seat concert hall — all on the house.
The Royal Albert Hall is one of the UK's most treasured and distinctive buildings. Tour guides took us through backstage hallways lined with vintage posters of The Beatles and other legendary performers, and then upstairs to see the best seats in the house: The Queen's royal box. Afterward we learned a quick history lesson about the Hall, from its opening by Queen Victoria in 1871 to the present, as well as its important role as a registered charity dedicated to preserving and promoting the arts.
In 2021, in conjunction with the Royal Albert Hall's 150th anniversary, the institution plans to launch a new 501(c)3 non-profit, Royal Albert Hall America, to strengthen Anglo-American ties, allow Americans to make tax-deductible donations, and broaden opportunities to engage with artists and exclusive events in the UK and America.
Thanks to Anne Kollar, Director of Club Meetings, for organizing another outstanding event. Bravo!
Click here to view an interactive "Who's Who" of famous artists who've conducted or performed on stage at the Hall. From Sir Colin Davis to Dame Shirley Bassey to the Dali Lama and Yo Yo Ma.
See the BBC Proms 2019 / Royal Albert Hall guide to learn more about the world's largest classical music concert series. Tickets for July and August concerts are now on sale.
This week's guest post, London Day Trip: Stonehenge & Salisbury, is from a former AWC member who recently moved back to the States. Check out her other posts on London Day Trips on her blog, Basic Bon Vivant: An American in London.
A guest post by Jenn, a former AWC member who just moved back to the States, from her blog Basic Bon Vivant: An American in London
"London is a world-class city. There is something here for everyone. For those who like to enjoy a good cocktail now and then, London’s cocktail bar scene is among the best in the world, according to The World’s 50 Best Bars." Read more here.
Everything you ever wanted to know about the 120 Year Founders' Day Charity Gala
What should I wear?
This is a chance to get dressed up and celebrate the past, present and future of the AWC while raising money for our charitable work. Go as fancy as you like but don’t let it stress you out. Dressy pant suits, cocktail dresses or evening gowns are all appropriate; black tie is completely optional.
What will others be wearing?
Whitney will likely be in a sparkly dress and designer heels. Sally will likely be in the same black yoga pants for 5 days running and will panic the day of and hit the local charity shops.
Can you wear yoga pants to a gala?
Absolutely not. One must draw the line somewhere.
How can I convince my partner to come?
Tell them that: 1) It will be fun; 2) everyone will be friendly (most are Americans!); 3) it’s International Women’s Day and you deserve to be honoured; 4) you were dragged to a foreign country, for heaven’s sake, so they can certainly be dragged out for one night. Jeesh.
If I go on my own will I feel awkward?
Not if we can help it. You’ll be among friends, some you may not have even met yet! Per party rules everyone will be required to reach out and speak to at least three people they don’t know. If you’d like to mix up the mingling, sign up for a volunteer shift to keep yourself busy.
Why is Founders’ Day important to you?
“2019 marked the start of seven years as a member of the AWC. This will be my fifth Founders’ Day to attend, having missed only a couple due to travel for family and friends’ weddings. I’m excited to be in charge this year as it’s always been an incredible event where I have a wonderful time with friends and make new friends. In fact, Founders’ Day was one of the first events that I attended as a new member and I met some of my best London mates that evening. Over the years, many have moved back to the States but the bonds we made through the club have endured distance and time. It can be tough to be a “long-termer” but by staying actively involved with the AWC, I continue to build new friendships and can help support those new to this fabulous city!”
– Whitney, Founders’ Day Chair and Director of Special Events
“I love volunteering at the Soup Kitchen and am thrilled that the proceeds from this event go to our three chosen charities. And I support the AWC because getting out of my apartment and being social is good for my sanity.”
– Sally, Founders’ Day Marketing & Publicity
Learn more about Founders' Day and register for the Charity Gala here: www.awclondon.org/Founders-Day-2019
Guest post by AWC member Jean Howarth Lindberg / My Lovely Life Abroad
Get up at 5:30 for a 6:30 meeting across town? Heck, yes!
Although it is awfully dark (January sunrise is 8am here in London), here I am, wiping the sleep from my eyes to meet Thirty-nine American Women's Club members on a bus, for a day of pottery shopping in Stoke-on-Trent, the historical home of English Pottery.
Quick History lesson: Stoke is known as "the Potteries", and its residents are "The Potters". There are 6 towns that comprise Stoke-on-Trent, and its residents even have their own dialect. Stoke-on-Trent is known as the British capital for china and pottery, and dates back to the 1600's. The area still produces china and pottery, and you will probably recognize some of these famous brands, originating here--Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode, Burleigh, Aynsley, Royal Stafford and Portmeirion.
(Read more here....)
Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, is the day that precedes Ash Wednesday. The name Shrove Tuesday comes from 'shive,' which means absolution for sins by doing penance. It's steeped in religious history and has everything to do with feasting before fasting during the Lenten Season.
But Why Pancakes?
In the past families would rid the house of such tempting ingredients, such as eggs, sugar, and milk to prepare for the 40 days of Lent. Not wanting to be wasteful they would serve up a filling, festive meal and pancakes were the perfect way to do this.
Right, Where to Eat?
Pancakes in the United Kingdom are quite different than those found in The United States. Often times resembling crepes, pancakes are slathered with chocolate spread and topped with various fruits and nuts. It can be difficult for an American girl to find the perfect pancake, here are my favourite spots for Pancake Day or any day.
The Breakfast Club
If you want American style pancakes and don't mind a queue this is the place for you.
The Breakfast Club is a small chain dinner with locations in Soho, Southwark and Canary Wharf.
Looking for a filling pancake but want something a little less traditional, then head to Granger & Co. with locations in Chelsea, Notting Hill, Clarkenwell, and King's Cross you'll be able to fill up any day of the week.
With a full menu that will meet many picky eaters, Granger & Co is popular at any time of day, any time of year. Ricotta hotcakes served with banana and honeycomb butter will definitely tick all the pancake day boxes
The Book Club
Located in Shoreditch, The Book Club is a hip eatery that often reminds me of my age. Head here if you want a traditional thin and slightly crispy pancakes that are over the top.
Pancakes, here, are served with caramel sauce bananas, fresh berries, blossom honey & berry compote. If you want to try something a little more decadent and exclusive to Pancake Day order the espresso-martini pancakes. Slathered with Kahlua cream and topped with vodka and chocolate coffee beans these pancakes are not for the faint of heart.
So where will I eat this year.
I'll be seated at my dinning table where my husband will play chef and delight the kids by flipping pan sized cakes into the air while I cringe at how close they come to hitting the ceiling. He and I will guestimate how many pancakes our son will eat this time, while our daughter will complain about her pancakes being too dark or too light. We will pass around a £7 bottle of Aunt Jemima and I'll watch in horror as both husband and son take a £2 pour. I will remind my children to 'use your fork' and get up half way though the meal to hand out napkins all while I shake my head saying "what do you wipe your hands on? DON'T ANSWER THAT!" Its not just a Shrove Day thing for us but a weekly ritual and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Photo credit: The Breakfast Club, Grabger & Co, the Book Club
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