27 July 2015

"Everything You Have Ever and Never Done"

I missed Nick Payne's play Constellations during its 2012 run at the Royal Court and I was even more disappointed to just miss its Broadway incarnation with Jake Gyllenhaal and the always excellent Ruth Wilson this spring. I like going to the theatre but I'm never very good at keeping on top of what is on, so I was pleased that I scanned the theatre section of last week's Time Out and noticed that Constellations was back for a limited run at the Trafalgar Studios and even happier that I managed to score some cheap tickets for the Saturday matinee.

Constellations tells the story—or, rather, stories—of Marianne (Louise Brealey), an astrophysicist, and Roland (Joe Armstrong), a bee-keeper, who meet at a barbecue. Marianne tells a weird anecdote about elbow licking, but Roland isn't impressed and they don't click. But then they meet at a barbecue and they do click. Above the stark black stage hang dozens of white balloons and every few minutes, different balloons light up and we see a different version of the same scene. The story moves along, sometimes incrementally and sometimes with long time-jumps, and we start to see different versions of their relationship that could have happened.

As in any relationship (or any possible version of any relationship), sometimes things go well, and other times, sad things happen. Intermittently, we also get snapshots from a time much further in the future. We see the same scene several times, but each time, there is slightly more dialogue and slightly more context, which allow us to gradually piece together what is happening.

It is a beautiful play, only 70 minutes long but extremely intense. It's often sad and moving, but it's also funny in places, particularly in some of the variations early on in the relationship. "I fucking love honey," one Marianne tells one Roland; it's her delivery that's key. Constellations is also very philosophical, and Marianne's job as a physicist allows her to introduce questions of time and of infinite possible worlds. She talks about "everything you have ever and never done," and then later tells Roland: "We still have all the time we've ever had."

Marianne gets the best lines and she is, perhaps, the more interesting character, but Roland makes a great foil. The chemistry between Brealey and Armstrong is fantastic and essential for such a production to work. In some ways, the play reminded me of Patrick Marber's Closer; in particular, the scenes when Marianne and Roland argue made me think of the devastating break-up between Larry and Anna (portrayed wonderfully on-screen by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts). The work with which I drew most connections, though, was Laura Barnett's novel The Versions of Us, which I read recently. Both look at all of the ways characters and relationships could have developed—and maybe have even developed in other possible worlds—and highlight questions of fate, love and what forever really means.

I mentioned the minimalist set design further up, but the play is also visually impressive. It was a nice touch to have the black floor printed with a hexagon grid, which seemed to be symbolic of Roland's beekeeping work (which also proves relevant to the story), whereas the white flashing balloons represented, to me, the infinite universe that Marianne studies.

By the end of Constellations, I was feeling emotionally exhausted but curious. If you're in the mood for a beautiful and thought-provoking play about love, life and even theoretical physics, then do try to get tickets. Unfortunately, this run ends on 1st August, so you'll need to act pretty swiftly.

23 July 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: The Proud Archivist

It was far too nice a morning on Sunday for breakfast in bed. The sun was shining and I was in serious need of brunch so I hopped on a bus to Haggerston for some casual, canal-side dining at The Proud Archivist, a café, gallery and event space.

The Proud Archivist is right on the canal towpath close to the Kingsland Road bridge, but my bus dropped me off a little further west, near the lovely and aptly named Towpath café. There are plenty of shiny new apartment buildings along this stretch of the canal — in fact, The Proud Archivist occupies the ground floor of one — but there is still plenty of character.

Given the pleasant weather, I was worried that the café was going to be full but I must have arrived early enough to beat the brunch rush and I snagged one of the long sharing tables on the towpath and in the sunshine. The view over the canal was very pleasant and it was fun to people-watch as the many joggers, cyclists and passersby went about their Sunday morning.

There weren't any hand-brewed filter coffees on the menu, although they do serve a single-origin batch-brew filter; instead, I ordered a piccolo. I had brewed an iced Aeropress coffee before leaving home but was starting to feel the need for my second caffeine hit of the day. The coffee is from Caravan and my piccolo was very good: smooth and creamy, even if the latte art had started to deconstruct on its way to my table.

Choosing what I wanted to eat was a little harder — the shakshouka (£9) sounded great and it doesn't usually take much persuasion to talk me into a bacon sarnie (£7), but regular readers will probably guess that I went for the poached egg and avocado on sourdough toast (£9). Seriously, brunch menu creators: all you need to ensure happiness in your patrons is to offer a dish that includes at least two of the holy trinity of poached egg, avocado and bacon.

The food was, of course, delicious: the eggs just the right consistency, the avo seasoned just so, and a big dollop of chilli jam on the side to keep things interesting. I rather liked the orange, star-shaped sunglasses that served to mark my table number too; it's a good thing that they weren't pink or I might have borrowed them!

The Proud Archivist is pretty big with long sharing tables inside and out along two sides of the building. They are open all day and have a pretty epic-looking cocktail menu — next time I'll have to try a Halley's Gimlet or, partly because of the name, a Bittersweet Symphony. There is also a revolving and evolving collection of well-curated art exhibitions, cultural talks, workshops and other events. It's the kind of place you to go for brunch and then spend the whole day there; unfortunately, though, I had other plans on Sunday. Another time, though...

The Proud Archivist. 2-10 Hertford Road, London, N1 5ET (Haggerston Overground). Website. Twitter.

20 July 2015

The Lambeth Country Show

Growing up in an Oxfordshire village, I used to get my fill of country shows and fairs. In London, however, they are a little harder to find. There is the Bermondsey Street Festival, of course, but that's more smart village fête than a rural affair. The Lambeth Country Show, an annual two-day event that takes over Brockwell Park in south-east London, is rather different.

One of my friends lives near Brockwell Park, so we met at her place, had a few drinks and then wandered over in the late afternoon. It was a lot bigger than I was expecting, with a couple of stages for music acts, and then different zones for food and drink, wildlife, shopping and even 'complementary therapies. We had, it seemed, missed the jousting, but there was some kind of sheep demonstration taking place — they were really putting the 'lamb' in Lambeth Country Show.

Next, we headed for the horticultural zone, where there were quite a few competitions in progress, including the classic 'best rose', as well as what seemed to be the 'best punny fruit and vegetable construction'. Jon Snowbergine for first place!

There was a good selection of plants and flowers for sale too, which was nice, given how hard it is to buy decent plants in central London. I picked up a few succulents and some cheery sunflowers, which I will probably kill promptly.

There was quite a lot going on in the wildlife areas too: with owls on hand, if you could stand the long wait, bees, and some animal representatives from Vauxhall City Farm. Perhaps most entertaining was the sheep shearing event, where a cheerful Kiwi gave us a brief history of the selective breeding of sheep (more interesting than it sounds), with live representatives from each of the breeds. This was followed by a sheep shearing and then a little sheep boogie to the sound of Abba's Dancing Queen — each of the sheep had its own dance move, and it was pretty impressive.

I hadn't heard of the headline act, Odyssey (perhaps they were looking for Jason's Golden Fleece), but the soul disco music seemed to go down very well with the happy show attendees. There were also plenty of rides and slides to keep the kids (and adults) entertained. It didn't hurt that the weather was near-perfect on Saturday. Best of all, though, there was just a really nice, chilled-out, family-friendly atmosphere you don't often see at London-based events. I'm keen to go back next year, although I think I'd probably go earlier in the day so the queues for the more popular activities aren't so bad.

14 July 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: St David Coffee House

I take a bus bound for Honor Oak most days, but beyond pondering the U-less spelling of Honor (it seems to date to the 17th century, before British English exiled its Us to the colonies), I hadn't given the southeast London area much thought. On Sunday, though, I rode the bus all the way to its end point: about halfway up One Tree Hill in Honor Oak. I was headed for Forest Hill, and yes, it is pretty hilly in that part of London. The clue is in the name, but central London is so flat that it's easy to forget about that little thing called altitude.

Before long, I arrived at my destination: St David Coffee House, a cheerful neighbourhood café near the Forest Hill Overground. I had heard that they served great coffee and even better brunch, and I wasn't disappointed. You know the brunch menu is on point when you read the first menu item and know you don't need to read on. Don't get me wrong; the other brunch dishes would have been great too, but how could I not order the poached egg, avocado and bacon on toast (£6.50)? Good brunch joints never make you choose between eggs, avocado and bacon. The food was excellent: the bacon was crispy and plentiful, the avo creamy and the egg the perfect consistency.

The coffee is from Square Mile and hand-brewed filter fans will be pleased to note that both Aeropress and V60 brew methods are available (£3); an iced version was also on offer for the same price. My Aeropress brew was very good, and I saw some nice-looking flat whites being carried out to other customers.

I almost caved and ordered a macchiato too, but it was time to move on and so I settled for one of Kooky Bakes' slices of awesomeness (I'm not sure the real name, but what else do you call a blondie-like cake with a pretzel base, chocolate, and various nuts?) to go.

St David is a friendly, cosy café with artfully mismatched wooden furniture and eclectic, retro décor. There are a couple of tables out front, but on drizzly days, you're better off sheltering indoors. They also serve dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and often hold pizza nights; check out their Twitter for more information.

If you're looking for a way to walk off your brunch, the wonderful Horniman Museum & Gardens is only half a mile away. The museum is free and houses a whole host of weird and wonderful natural history, art and anthropological objects, while the gardens have a lovely view over the London skyline.

St David Coffee House. 5 David Road, London, SE23 3EP (Forest Hill Overground). Website. Twitter.
Horniman Museum & Gardens. 100 London Road, London, SE23 3PQ (Forest Hill Overground). Website.

10 July 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: Notes King's Cross

I've sung the praises of Notes — a small but growing collection of London-based cafés that serve coffee by day and wine by night — several times before, but although their newest branch in Pancras Square has been open several months and is only a few minutes' walk from my desk, I have managed not to visit. When a co-worker invited us to go with her to a jazz night there on Wednesday, which I was unable to attend, I decided to rectify this omission.

Pancras Square is a buzzy little public space with plenty of seating, trees and water features located in the gap between King's Cross and St Pancras stations. There are several good restaurants there now (including the excellent Granger & Co) and Notes, with its all-day casual charm fits right in. There are a few tables outside, a couple more on the ground floor of the café and more still on the loft-like mezzanine. The design is classic indie coffee shop: plenty of wood, black metal, exposed brick and quirky light fixtures.

The coffee is roasted at the Notes roastery, just up the road at the Tileyard location (which seems no longer to be open to the public). They serve all the usual espresso-based drinks, but there is also a special summer drinks menu, including various iced coffees and the 18-hour cold brew that I had my eye on. If you don't have to go back to the office — or, depending on where you work, even if you do — there are various craft beers and an excellent wine list.

I ordered a cold brew (£3.50), a piccolo (£2.60) and a blondie and went to take a seat near the sleek black twin La Marzoccos that sit proudly on the counter. While I waited for my coffee, I dug into the blondie, which was very good, and just about the right size for a post-lunch treat. If you haven't already eaten, there is a selection of nice-looking sandwiches and salads in the fridge.

The coffee arrived and I soon realised why the £8 bill had been so cheap: a batch-brew filter coffee had been dispatched instead of the cold brew. Eek! Luckily, they quickly swapped the long drink for a bottle of the Kenyan Kamwangi Ab cold brew. Yesterday was a pretty warm day and I was grateful for the refreshing cold brew, which was complex and fruity but none of the bitterness you sometimes get with rushed and otherwise poorly created cold brews. I almost bought a second bottle to keep in the office fridge but the coffee in our office is so bad, I didn't think it would last long.

I've had Notes piccolos and macchiatos many times before, but this one was particularly good: its creamy smoothness contrasted nicely with the sharper acidity of the cold brew. I was obviously tired because even after my fourth coffee of the day, I wasn't exactly bouncing off the walls, my colleagues were probably relieved to observe.

If you have time to kill at King's Cross or St Pancras and are in need of caffeination or a nice place to chill, do not be put off by the many chain coffee shops inside the stations: venture outside and grab a seat at Notes. You won't regret it. And if you really like them, you might like to consider crowd-funding their next location.

Notes King's Cross. 1 Pancras Square, London, N1C 4AG (Tube: King's Cross); other locations here. Website. Twitter.

7 July 2015

The Die Is Cast: The Versions of Us Review

Deep inside of a parallel universe 
It's getting harder and harder 
To tell what came first.

— Red Hot Chili Peppers, Parallel Universe

Why tell one love story when you can explore three different versions of the love story between two characters? That is the premise of Laura Barnett's much-lauded new novel The Versions of Us, which spans more than seven decades in the lives of would-be writer Eva and would-be painter Jim. It is an ambitious work, but in addition to the technical achievement of her novel, in Eva, Barnett has created a complex and sympathetic heroine, whom you will want to champion in each version.

The novel starts, predictably enough, with the birth of the leads. The next time we meet them they are Cambridge students in the late 1950s and this is where the story splits into three, like a greater, literary Sliding Doors. Eva is on her bike, late for a supervision, and in two versions of the story (which differ in other ways), she falls off her bike and meets Jim; in the other version, she cycles on and doesn't meet Jim, but remains in a relationship with David, a charming and charismatic, if self-involved, actor.

It is difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving away any spoilers, but clearly, it wouldn't make for good dramatic tension if the version where Eva and Jim couple up early on was all sunshine and roses, while the Eva who stays with David remains crippled with sadness. Instead, the three stories overlap considerably and are as notable for their similarities as for their differences, as Eva and Jim work on their careers (achieving various degrees of success), start families and experience sadnesses. They make mistakes and sometimes they get a second chance.

At times — particularly in the early pages, before more unique characters who only appear in one or two of the versions surface — I found myself uncertain of which version I was reading. I'm a fast reader but I would definitely recommend slowing down for the first few cycles until you get used to the nuances of the characters and the tiny, butterfly-effect-like ripples of each decision they make.

Despite its superficial resemblances to Sliding DoorsThe Versions of Us is more reminiscent of Sartre's Les Jeux Sont Faits, another favourite of mine, in which Pierre and Ève die, meet in the afterlife and fall in love, only to find out that there might be some kind of second chance for soulmates. [Spoiler alert: The clue is, however, in the name of Sartre's work ('the die is cast').] Barnett's novel offers a more positive view: despite bad luck and bad decisions, things often have a way of working out the way they are supposed to. Don't worry, then, if your bike misses that rusty nail or if you miss the Tube; you may yet get another chance. In the meantime, do pick up a copy of Barnett's novel: it's beautiful, thought-provoking and a real emotional rollercoaster.

3 July 2015

The Burger Bulletin: Granger & Co King's Cross

After sampling the brunch at casual–cool Aussie all-day-dining venue, Granger & Co, I was keen to go back for dinner. The opening of their latest branch — tantalisingly close to my office in King's Cross — was the perfect opportunity to do so.

The restaurant occupies the ground floor of one of the many shiny new buildings that have opened up in Pancras Square, between King's Cross and St Pancras stations. Various restaurants and cafés have been springing up there over the past few months, including Vinoteca and Notes, but Granger & Co is the latest. There are a handful of tables on the 'square' itself, and the rest are indoors, all arranged around a peach-tiled, brass-topped bar. It's not a particularly big space and although there were plenty of free tables at 6.30 on a warm, if not sunny, evening, the place soon filled up. Oh, and they don't take bookings, so it is worth arriving early.

The first task was to tackle the cocktail menu. The cocktails (most are £9.50) don't have names, but simply contain a spirit plus three or four fruit and vegetable ingredients. I was sorely tempted by a rose gin, cucumber, lemon verbena and celery concoction, but the Mexican-inspired tequila-avocado-agave combo won me over. The creamy smoothness of the avocado contrasted nicely with the sharpness of the tequila. If I closed my eyes, I might almost be back in DF. For my next move, I tried the rum, honeydew melon and green chilli cocktail, which was just as refreshing, and more piquant, if not quite as green.

The menu is divided into small plates and big plates, although the BBQ and Bowls & Grains sections also offer main-course-sized dishes. To start, my friend and I shared one of the small plates: the Korean fried chicken (£8.50), which came with a spicy sesame dip and some lettuce. The chicken was really good and the portion was quite generous — with a side dish, you could probably make it into your main course.

We both ordered burgers for our main course. My friend went for the shrimp burger with jalapeño mayo (£15), but as I'd been to Granger & Co several times and never tried the grass-fed beef burger (£14.50), I felt that the time had come. I was saddened to hear that medium was the minimum amount of cooking for the burger. I asked to have it 'as rare as legally possible' but it ended up being on the medium-well side. That said, the beef was really flavoursome and juicy. Not dripping with juices and grease, exactly, but moist, for sure. The burger was served with fries and club sauce — it also comes with 'impatient pickles' (lightly pickled gherkins), but I'm a purist and so gave them a miss.

We didn't really have room for a pudding, but half a pudding was another matter, and we shared the salted caramel and bitter chocolate pot (£7). Some days, it seems, you get peanut butter mousse instead of salted caramel, which would have been even better, but I still enjoyed the latter, which was served in a cute piccolo cup.

It wasn't an especially cheap meal — we paid about £45 each, including service — but the food was creative, well thought out and high quality, the drinks were top-notch, and the service excellent. It certainly beats the old days when, stuck waiting for a train back to Cambridge, the only food options in King's Cross were a Cornish Pasty Co and a Caffe Nero, that's for sure! Vive la régénération!

Granger & Co. Stanley Building ,7 Pancras Square, London, N1C 4AG (Tube: King's Cross). Website. Twitter.