I spent the day in London with my daughter last week.
We caught the train to Waterloo which is one huge shopping mall nowadays. The sky was grey and there was a chill breeze coming off the river. Along the South Bank the plane trees, which do a good job of absorbing pollution and providing shade, were just coming into leaf, which shows what a cold slow Spring we’ve had in the south east of the UK.
Our first stop was the National Thatre where we bought tickets for the evening performance of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ by Terence Rattigan. We also took the opportunity of walking along the Sherling High-Level Walkway which offers a fascinating glimpse into the set-building, rehearsal rooms and prop making areas of our busy National Theatre.
Across Waterloo Bridge to Somerset House. I always enjoy the space of the cobbled central courtyard with the fountains playing. We paused briefly in a small exhibition space devoted to marking the 500th anniversary of the publication of ‘Utopia’ by Thomas More. I still have my battered paperback edition from when I was studying History ‘A’ level at school. Thomas More was one of my heroes, partly because he took the education of girls seriously.
We emerged into Lancaster Place (where I used to work in 1983 in my wine and spirit days) and skirted around Covent Garden before stopping for lunch at The Farmstand which serves local, seasonal, sustainable and delicious food in a very civilised environment. Highly recommended especially if you need a quick pre-theatre supper in the Covent Garden area.
We wended our way along narrow lanes to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Our destination was Sir John Soane’s House and Museum. Sir John was an architect and designer and a master of perspective and illusion and his house is a labyrinth of vistas, reflections, changes of level and demonstrates the 18th century mania for antiquity and all things Gothic. Of particular note was the excellent exhibition celebrating Shakespeare and the actor David Garrick.
We continued along quiet back streets to Bloomsbury (I love these austere Georgian brick terraces and green squares and looking out for the plaques to famous residents such as George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Roger Fry, not to mention Vanessa and Virginia of course) to The Foundling Museum on the corner of Brunswick Square. If you are interested in social history, women and children and philanthropy then I can’t recommend highly enough a visit to the Foundling Museum. The Foundling hospital was founded by Thomas Coram, a shipwright, in 1745 because he was horrified by the number of abandoned babies and children on London’s streets. The original building was demolished in 1926 and in 1937 a new building was erected on the site and the 18th century Court Room and the Picture Gallery remade. There is a permanent collection of works by Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds, all donated by the artists in their lifetimes to support the work of the charity and these artworks are in poignant contrast to the collection of tokens left with the abandoned infants by the mothers as a means of identification just in case they were ever in a position to reclaim their children. Buttons and scraps of fabric from dresses, name tags, lockets and tiny pieces of embroidery – all unbearably sad.
Last week we were here specially for Cornelia Parker’s superbly curated exhibition entitled ‘FOUND’. Altogether there are 60 outstanding artworks spread around the museum all with a story composed by Cornelia or the artist. Some were heart-wrenching, some made me laugh, but all made me think. A few that really stood out included Anthony Gormley’s bronze cast of his six-day-old daughter which made me think of the thousands of newborn babies who have died in London over the centuries and indeed who still die today throughout the developing world. Another was a filthy sleeping bag by Gavin Turk with the outline of a human being inside laid carelessly in front of the fireplace of the Court Room, one of the grandest baroque drawing rooms in London then and now, which made me think of all the freezing and hungry homeless people in London and around the world.
By this time we were both feeling foot-sore and weary (I was still getting over a painful bike fall six days earlier) so we took the most direct route back across Waterloo Bridge to consider where to eat. In fact it was an easy decision and after a quick sit-down in the National Theatre foyer we headed out to Wahaca, the buzzy Mexican restaurant housed in stacked shipping containers, very appropriate as we were on the site where ships and barges would be unloaded by stevedores before the advent of containerisation and purpose-built container terminals in the 1960s. We kicked off with a mojito and a bowl of guacamole and tortilla chips and then shared four plates of delicious street food. We were on the highest level and the view across the Thames to Somerset House with fairy lights twinkling in the trees was so pretty.
Back in the theatre there was a full house for ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ and a palpable air of excitement. Helen McCrory (last seen playing Medea at the National Theatre) was mesmerising as Hester Collyer and conveyed the passion, the rawness, the desperation of a woman in love with a man who cannot meet her needs, not necessarily through any fault of his own. In many ways all the characters were victims of circumstance – of that particularly repressed mid-20th century period which followed two world wars. All the performances were excellent and the direction by Carrie Cracknell illuminating. I am sure it will be screened in local cinemas and theatres soon as part of the NT Live initiative. It rounded off a wonderful and memorable day and I must say a special thank you to my daughter for being the perfect companion.