A true American like Ron Swanson may not understand the constant pull we fetish-izers of British culture feel to return to the Motherland. But anytime I’m not in London, I’m usually wishing that I were, scone in one hand, umbrella in the other. This January, thanks to the fine people who price the flights at USAirways, I was able to make a UK pilgrimage for what I usually drop in a couple of Etsy sprees. And you know I had to do it up fandom-style.
As you know, the British Isles are home to many fictional characters we adore. Not only that, but – until we can seduce them over to Broadway – several of the actors who play said fictional characters can usually be found treading the boards in London. So, to sum the goals of my trip up in just a few words: 1) pay appropriate homage to British fandoms 2) watch the men I know as super villains and cheeky aliens stretch out their ample theater muscles and 3) eat all the pub food I can find. All of it.
Here’s what I found when I crossed the pond, plus a few tips for getting the most out of your UK vacation.
American Psycho at the Almeida Theatre
Blasting straight through my jet lag, I spent my first night in London at the 325-seat Almeida Theatre in Islington. I’d known of the musical adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel for quite a while – since its successful Kickstarter campaign, really – and had it on my “probably” theater list for months. That is, until the morning that the Almeida announced that Matt Smith’s first post-Doctor Who role would be that of Wall Street psychopath Patrick Bateman. I hightailed it to the ticketing site immediately and snagged the last seat for this performance.
Adaptations are just that – with heaps of artistic choices dictated by their medium. So, while not expecting American Psycho: The Musical to look exactly like American Psycho: The Novel or American Psycho: The Christian Bale Movie, I did have high expectations. The book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa pins down the particular humor of the existentially bleak source material; and Duncan Sheik’s original score, with the exception of one or two extraneous numbers, successfully leverages synthy ’80s pop to drive home the glossy and gothic materialism of Patrick’s world. Actual hits from that decade were inserted sparingly and to great effect, especially when Bateman commutes to work with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” blaring through his Walkman.
And what of Matt? Respectable American accent, serviceable singing voice, imposing stage presence, and really quite exquisite abs. You may have heard that he makes his entrance in a “tanning bed” wearing nothing but tighty whities. I’m glad I was able to mentally and emotionally prepare myself to watch that in the middle of a room full of strangers. Add some cool graphic direction by Rupert Goold and a supporting cast full of cute boys (special shout out to Jonathan Bailey of Broadchurch who played Tim Price like the young version of McConaughey’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street), American Psycho kept a weary traveler awake and excited about the future of musical theater. Did I mention that Matt Smith was totally in his underwear?
Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse
The hottest ticket in London right now is to a 251-seat theater for a little-produced, late-career Shakespeare play. Possibly because, under Artistic Director Josie Rourke, the Donmar has been consistently popping out work that makes a splash at home before an almost guaranteed West End or US transfer. Well, that…and Tom Hiddleston.
My brain and body were practically humming after seeing Tom on stage for the first time and in such a tour-de-force. But one thought rose above the general clamor: this is the beginning of his career. This man is 33-years-old. Think about the body of work he has ahead of him. It’s unfathomable.
I don’t want to be that jerk and say that Hiddleston was just so present in his role. But I’m going to be, because he was. Like I wrote in our “Entertainer of the Year“ tribute to him, Tom approaches every role with the same amount of careful preparation and gusto. And in this part, he gets to rage, sass, patronize, kiss a boy, kiss a girl, sword fight, take a shower onstage, and break our hearts with wet eyes and a single speech. In the climax of the play, Coriolanus’s mother pleads with him to spare Rome. Until this point in the scene, Coriolanus has been cold and unmovable, even to his best friend and his wife. He faces the audience, his back to his mother. As she talks and without moving a single muscle, he just starts weeping. Full on, snotty-nosed, wet-faced weeping. I could not breathe. GET THEE TO BROADWAY, HIDDLES.
The rest of the cast give knockout performances too, particularly Deborah Findley as Coriolanus’s steely mother, Hadley Fraser as his sworn enemy, and the one and only Mark Gatiss as – obviously – a dry-witted intellectual. Mark was battling a cold and didn’t come out to sign after the performance. A disappointment, since I really just wanted to shake his hand, thank him for Sherlock series 3, and get a Mycroft bitchy-resting-face picture with him. We were told by the staff that Tom was no longer able to come out to sign post-performance. It makes sense, since the Donmar doesn’t have the space to put up barriers, set up extra staff, or do much really to keep overeager fans from ripping his clothing to shreds. This is why we can’t have nice things, you guys. Behave yourselves.
So no Me + Hiddles 4Ever picture to show you all, sadly. It’s cool though, since I happened to be sitting just two seats away from my sun and stars, Billie Piper.
Being that I usually refer to Bills as my future wife, you’ll be impressed that I stayed relatively cool. She’s a featured guest at Gallifrey One in Los Angeles next week, so I decided to save the fangirling till then and satisfied myself with acting like a normal person in her presence. I did notice her take a photo and chat to a fan, so rest assured that she wasn’t putting off “leave me alone” vibes. She’s luminous and perfect and wonderful, always. So.
Warner Brothers Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter
This immersive HP experience is a bit of a trek from the city, but totally worth the trip and an absolute must for any die-hard fan. After booking your timed-entry tickets in advance, take a train to Watford, where an obnoxiously decked out Harry shuttle bus picks you up and drives you ten minutes to the studio. As you can probably guess, the Harry Potter tour is a massive operation. The lobby alone is huge, housing a cafeteria, a Starbucks, coat check, and a bright and shiny gift shop that will swallow all of your monies if you let it.
Two full buildings and an outdoor area house full and partial sets, countless props and costumes, plus some gorgeous models and concept art. You can glance in the Mirror of Erised, window shop in Diagon Alley, check the House Cup scoreboard, chug a real butterbeer (creamy and delicious), hop on the back of the Knight Bus, and knock on the door of #4 Privet Drive. Marvel at how teensy Ron and Harry’s first-year Weasley sweaters are or appreciate the breathtaking detail in background props like a set of house elf armor or a Yule Ball poster, there’s something magical for even the most cynical movie fan to get excited about. This stuff doesn’t just look good, people. Love and craftsmanship went into every last component of these films, and it shows. Buckbeak’s eyes are unmistakably kind. You can practically feel the warmth radiating from the kitchen at the Burrow. The “Magic is Might” Ministry statue might give you chills, as it did me.
The pièce de résistance is the 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts that was built for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It takes at least a full 15 minutes to wend your way around it and take it all in.
All told, the tour takes about three hours, give or take the time you spend wandering glassy-eyed around the gift shop. (The wand expert almost wore me down. ALMOST.) And again, it’s time well-spent. There’s movie magic for adults, regular magic for kids, and a precious introductory film with Dan, Rupert, and Emma. If it’s good enough for Prince William and Kate Middleton, it’s good enough for you.
Doctor Who Experience/Cardiff Bay
For Whovian reasons, a day trip to Cardiff Bay was always in the cards. The beautiful thing about traveling to one country in Europe – “where the history comes from” – is that it’s pretty easy and cheap to bop around to others. Cardiff, Wales is just about a two and a half hour train ride from Paddington Station and I paid about $50 for a roundtrip off-peak ticket. There are also buses that take an hour or two longer and are even cheaper, but I didn’t fly to London to ride the MegaBus. Trains are so much more European and romantic. Someday, there will be a murder on a train that I’m on and I will solve it. Everyone will be wearing hats.
From the Cardiff Central station, I took a light rail train to Cardiff-Queens Street (one stop) and then another from there to Cardiff Bay. Sounds like a hassle, but these trains come frequently and you’re only on them each for a few minutes. A few minutes walk from the train station, and there’s Cardiff Bay. There’s a TARDIS on it, as you’d expect. Everything looks slightly familiar, especially the Cardiff Bay Water Feature. Otherwise known as the entrance to Torchwood.
I brought a couple of extra cheese and pepperoni and knocked, but Jack and Gwen weren’t at home.
The Millennium Centre is a massive arts complex on the bay. The lobby served as the entrance to the cat nun hospital in New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York in the Doctor Who episode “New Earth.” And you can see the Welsh inscription on its facade behind Rose Tyler’s adorable face in the gif above. (Welsh is a crazy-looking language, no?) Much of the waterfront is in development still, but a huge BBC Drama production studio has been operating there for a few years. I walked by it and saw a decorative, full-sized Dalek chilling by reception. This, as they say, is where the magic happens.
But above all, the main reason for a British sci-fi fan to make the trip to Cardiff is the Doctor Who Experience, which lives in a giant blue warehouse on the water. Is it weird that I maybe felt a little nervous when I walked in? If I did, I was instantly soothed by Eleven’s lovely tricey from “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” who sat right inside the doors.
Guys, it’s awesome. I highly, highly recommend the Experience to anyone who loves the Doctor. The first half of the tour was actually an experiential piece. Our group of about 20 were shuffled into a dark room to watch an intro video – a sort of greatest hits of Series 5, it seemed. Then the screen opened up (I won’t tell you how, it’s too cool) and we walked onto, well, a spaceship. There was Matt as Eleven, in some films that had been shot especially for the tour. He called us “shoppers” and told us what to do to rescue him – it was all very cute and twee until a second set of doors opened and we walked into a full scale replica of the interior of his TARDIS. And if it isn’t the next best thing to being invited on a trip through time and space by a mysterious stranger, I don’t know what it is. It looks perfect and it felt real. I was practically giving myself a headache trying not to cry, when I looked around and saw a lot of my fellow tourists fighting that internal battle. A little too real? Those Weeping Angels they sprung on us in a dark, strobe-lit “forest.” Adults (myself included) were actually screaming.
The second half of the Experience (after meeting the Daleks, saving the Doctor, etc), was the actual exhibit. It’s definitely heavy on the modern series, but with enough old-school costumes, props, and monsters to please a classic fan. It’s quite up to date, with the replica of Hartnell’s TARDIS that was built for An Adventure in Space and Time, wardrobe of the War Doctor and the Moment (which I did NOT steal for cosplay reasons, though I was tempted) from the 50th anniversary, and Eleven and Clara’s ensembles from this year’s Christmas Special. I forced a stranger to take a picture of me with Ten’s brown suit (so tall, so thin) and again with Nine and Ten’s TARDIS. It WAS his grunge period, wasn’t it? It’s even dingier up close. And still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
The wise old Face of Boe is craggy, but sort of lovely in its age. Through the years, the Time Lords are as theatrical and full-of-themselves as ever in those unmanageable collars. Sarah Jane’s skirt suit looks friendly and capable, just like her. And gorgeous, lovely Rory is still wearing Amy’s face on his chest.
Unless you can time your visit with a show at the Millennium Centre or take a long, boozy lunch at one of the restaurants in the Mermaid Quay complex, there isn’t a full day’s worth of sightseeing to do in Cardiff Bay. But for a Doctor Who fan, it’s a must.
Richard II at the Barbican
My last act as a temporary Londoner was to catch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II in its final days at the Barbican Theatre. Or, to put it another way, to be in the same room as David Tennant and his glorious, royal weave.
I don’t want to say that seeing Tennant on stage was my main reason for going to London this winter, but it probably was. So I settled myself in my front row Dress Circle seat and hoped I wouldn’t slide right out of it when he came on stage.
Coriolanus was an intimate, gritty production. Where it was modern and minimalist, Richard was traditional. It’s the RSC, what else to expect? It was solid and obviously stacked with consummate professionals. But besides my glee over seeing David, my overall reaction was more appreciative than rapturous. Perhaps I’d have appreciated Richard more if I’d flipped the order in which I saw them. Also, are the historical plays anyone’s favorites?
I’ll have to ask Paul McGann when I see him at Gally next week, since I spotted him in the lobby during the interval. He was wearing a brown suit and thick-rimmed glasses and looked – you guessed it – super fine.
Anyway, David acts Shakespeare with the amount of visible effort you’d expect he shows when he reads his personal emails. Are people from the UK born with iambic pentameter encoded into their DNA? My friends were asking me, “Were you dying over him?” And I was, but, let me tell you, Richard II is maybe the least sexy character in all of the Willy Shakes canon. The best way I can describe Tennant’s characterization of him is that it was not entirely unlike Mr. Burns when he was all drugged up and glowing in The X-Files episode of The Simpsons. He was even wearing the same nightgown, I’m pretty sure.
David did come out to sign. The Barbican has the luxury of space that other theaters don’t. But because I was unwilling to leap over the lovely couple sitting next to me and run full-speed to the stage door, I was too far back to get his signature. But I SAW him and I HEARD him and his accent is everything and SOMEDAY, DAVID. SOMEDAY, we will take a photo together.
Other Stuff I Did:
- Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre: This was the only show I hadn’t planned to see in advance, but with a cast including Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Coyle (Mista Baaaaates), I couldn’t resist.
Fine performances and darkly funny, but Mojo wasn’t the Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels Live! that I expected. The highlight was when I raced to the Ladies Toilets during the interval and found myself literally pressed up against Chris Noth. Team Big forever. And again: Mr. Bates.
- Thames Walk: One sunny day, I decided to take this walk from Parliament Square to the Tower of London. I know, it’s from a site about getting around London with a baby. Doesn’t matter. I spent a whole afternoon following this route back and forth across the Thames, seeing everything from Blackfriars Bridge to the Globe.
- 221B: My hotel is located on Gower, also known to Sherlockians as “Faker Street.” Not a 7-minute walk from my hotel is THE fake 221B Baker Street, actually 187 N. Gower. We paid our homage to Holmes and Watson at their front door and then stopped into Speedy’s Cafe for a hot chocolate.
- Museums: Museums are FREE. This is a great situation for me, since I’m not the kind of person who can spend hours in one. I really just want to see a few things and then spend twice as much time in the gift shop. All I care about in the British Museum is the Ancient Greek and Egyptian exhibits, so that’s all I did. I went straight to the Impressionists in the National Gallery. (Yes, Whovians, I saw the Van Goghs. But I missed “Sunflowers” by TWO DAYS. Luckily, the Who Shop had the REAL version, complete with Vincent’s dedication to Amy.) On recommendations from guide books and friends, I also checked out the Sir John Soanes’s Museum. Soanes was an architect and a collector – his house is filled to the rafters with the paintings and antiquities he spent his life acquiring. Very cool, off-the-beaten path museum. And also free. Free stuff is the best.
- Friends! I traveled and stayed alone, but was fortunate enough to meet up with a handful of friends. Thanks to Terena, Taylah, Rebecca, Kelly, and Kelcie for meeting up with me to drink, eat, and geek out. Let’s do this again sometime.
- Hotel: I stayed at the Arosfa Hotel in Bloomsbury, and I highly recommend it to anyone traveling solo. It wasn’t easy to find a private room that didn’t charge extra for single occupancy. Arosfa has true singles and my bill came to about $125 a night. Not bad when you consider that the rate included free, fast WiFi and a full cooked-to-order breakfast every morning.The only teeny, tiny issue that I had was with the hot water. During the weekend, it took several minutes to get a burst that lasted briefly. On weekdays, when the hotel must have been less full, there was plenty. The service made all the difference. My room was on the top floor – no lift – but it was fine, since the very first thing the staff did when I walked in the door after almost a full day of traveling was take my bags out of my hand and carry them up six flights of stairs. The hotel is located within a short distance of several tube stops and it’s only a 10-minute walk to Covent Garden and 15 to Piccadilly Circus. I did have to go into the map a few times, but that’s okay.
- Phone/Internet: I have an iPhone 5s and a contract with Sprint. I paid the monthly rate of $4.99 pro-rated to my actual days of travel to get International Service. This meant that international calls from my cell would be 99 cents a minute instead of $1.99. Texts were 50 cents to send, 5 cents to receive. I only did this for emergencies, since London has fully embraced free, public WiFi. (And calling cards are the way to go to check in with home.) Most coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and even theaters had some kind of free, public service. Even when they’re closed. My friend Terena and I loitered outside a darkened Cafe Nero at 11pm on a Saturday night, Yelping for a good bar in Covent Garden. Also, WhatsApp is a total godsend. Free for the first year, the app allows you to send free texts to any number when you have WiFi service. Absolutely crucial.
- Traveling in the off-season: We got very lucky with weather. Last year, London had a brutal winter. But my days there this January were mostly sunny and a good 20 degrees warmer than it was at the same time in New York. I’ve only ever been to London in the “off-season” and I’m now hooked to the short lines and general lack of tourist clumps. Can you imagine anything less stressful than sightseeing on a weekday in January? I walked right into the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the National Gallery. The only obstacles I encountered in any of those hugely popular attractions were groups of school kids on field trips and WHO CARES because they were pint-sized Brits in tiny uniforms.
- Money: People go on and on about how expensive London is, but those people obviously don’t live in New York. I don’t feel like I broke the bank with this trip, but I still did everything I wanted to do. The trick is planning in advance. I booked my plane ticket in May, and from that point, I started filling my itinerary with shows I wanted to see and trips I wanted to take. I even ordered my Oyster card online and had it shipped to my house, ready to use. By booking tickets in advance, I was able to work them into my regular monthly budget instead of decimating my bank account in a matter of weeks. Also, there are some purchases that are cheaper over there, even with the exchange rate. New York should take a cue from the UK – theater is so much more reasonably priced. The most I paid for a ticket was about $90 for a prime seat for Richard. On Broadway, prices for premium seats can go as high as $250. Coriolanus and American Psycho were closer to $45. There’s no point in doing much retail shopping in London, since we pretty much have all the same stores here. Outdoor markets like Spitalfields are the way to go, since their vintage doesn’t have that unreasonable Brooklyn mark-up that I’m used to. Even coffee is cheaper – try finding a latte for $3 in NYC.
- Pubs: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg weren’t kidding about the “Starbuck-ing” of English pubs in The World’s End. The struggle to find an independently-owned watering hole is real. Instead of doing the “let’s walk around and find a place” thing, check Yelp before you leave to find one that’s not a chain. Also, what is the deal with everything closing so early? I thought these people were drinkers. Especially if you’re out on a weeknight, don’t be surprised to find the lights turned up and last call happening at 10:30pm.
- Traveling Alone: A snap. Picking a hotel in the right location is key. I never felt unsafe coming back “home” after a night out. With that done, London is an incredibly easy city to navigate solo.
Now I’m feeling unbearably homesick for London. If you’ve got UK travel tips or geek experiences to share, leave them in the comments!