Shortly before Christmas, Anna and I met in London for our early celebration. For anyone who doesn’t know, Anna is one of my closest and dearest friends. Our friendship began over seminars about Women and Gender (the word ‘crisis’ will never have quite the same meaning again!); frustrating lectures about the Roman Republic (“this may have happened, but we don’t really know because we don’t have any sources, so it’s just guess work, and anything could have happened really” – gargh!), and jousting with the year below in our Australian history classes. Add in many nights spent navigating the sticky, glass-strewn floors of Walkabout Temple, two rugby varsity matches and a trip to Belfast, and we emerged at the end of uni with a cast iron bond.
Sadly, since graudation, Anna has returned to her native Sussex, and our paths don’t cross half as often as I’d like. So whenever our schedules do happen to align, we make sure we do something special. Whether that be a theatre show in the West End, cocktails at our favourite bar (B@1), wandering the Lanes in Brighton or even just chilling at hers with a home-cooked meal and a weird ass film. Labyrinth with David Bowie was the film of choice last time – lots of trolls and skin-tight lycra made for a rather trippy kind of afternoon!)
However, for our Christmas catch up we had something more cultural planned, starting off at the Wedding Dress Exhibition at the V&A. Anna is engaged, and with a wedding on the horizon in the next few years we definitely had a justification to wander around looking at pretty dresses! Plus I always love an excuse to visit the V&A.
Now, I know that some girls have been planning their wedding day since they were about five. At least that’s what I believe from watching endless reruns of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. I was never really one of these girls, and I still don’t have any fixed plans to this day. But I have daydreamed every now and then about the type of dress I could see myself in once The Big Day rolls around. Currently I’m favouring a lace/Grecian hybrid with sparkles, a monster mash up of styles which would probably look like a five year old designed it!
The V&A exhibition spans 1775-2014, with the 1775-1940s era on the ground floor, and the modern styles on the mezzanine floor. I love the V&A itself as a whole – there is always something beautiful on display, and it’s where Ben and I went to see the 80s fashion exhibition shortly before we became an item last year. The exhibition space was dedicated to case after case of flowing satin, lace and chiffon, sumptuous, understated, sparkly and simple. I suspect the date of 1775 was chosen partly due to the availability of dress samples spanning from that date, which in turn will have informed the evolution of wedding dress styles over time. We learned that in eighteenth century Britain, white was one of several colours favoured by brides for their dresses, and that they would often choose a coloured, patterned dress which could be worn again after the big day. This practicality stands in sharp contrast to today, where many brides will spend £1000 or more on a dress which is then never worn again!
In the nineteenth century, families of high rank could purchase a licence which allowed them to marry wherever they liked, such as at the family home. This had a knock-on effect on dress designs, as in church the head had to be covered and the dress sleeves long. At home, a bride could keep her head uncovered and wear short sleeves. The white dress tradition we know today seems to have come from the Victorian era, where a white dress, veil and orange blossom wreath were popular, and were soon regarded as traditional. Lace also seems to have made its big debut around this time, and Honiton lace from Devon was considered the finest of all.
Although I have no photos, there was also a focus on men’s wedding fashion. There were several waistcoats on display, some embroidered with flowers like lily of the valley and forget-me-nots. They started off pale, but men’s clothing became darker from the early 1860s onwards. It seems they liked a little embellishment and decoration as much as their brides!
Dress styles evolved again with the end of the First World War to white, pastels and metallics. One of my favourite dresses was this one by Norman Hartnell, a stunning floorsweeper in white scattered with stars. The train was incredibly long and detailed, and was one of my two favourites on the lower floor. It was worn in 1933 by Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeney, and was one of the first ‘society weddings’.
The other favourite was a dress from 1938, when electrical engineer Monica Maurice married Dr Arthur Jackson. She wore a gorgeous red silk gauze dress, which spoke of both practicality and beauty. Isn’t it lovely?
From there, we ascended to the mezzanine floor for the modern section of the exhibition. Here we found, as they’d say on Bake Off, the Showstopper round. Gorgeous dresses filled a sea of glass cases, and a security guard prowled to make sure we didn’t get too close. And the first dress we caught sight of was a corker.
It was none other than Dita Von Teese’s dress from her 2005 wedding dress to Marilyn Manson. It was a favourite with both Anna and I, made of purple shot synthetic taffeta. Isn’t it fabulous? Designed by Vivienne Westwood (who also designed our graduation gowns, don’tcha know!) I think we both fell a little bit in love with that!
Another famous addition was the Anna Valentine coat designed for Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall) for the service of blessing at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle in 2005 when she married Prince Charles.
And I adored this stunning Jenny Packham dress. If money were no object, I would have a room full of Jenny Packham dresses – they are truly gorgeous. No wonder she’s a favourite designer of the equally beautiful Kate Middleton.
With our heads full of gorgeous dresses, Anna and I wandered through affluent Knightsbridge and cut across Hyde Park (the queue for Winter Wonderland was ridiculous) and into Mayfair. We basically walked and pottered around for a few hours, savouring the sights of Christmassy London…
I had booked this on OpenTable, and I was very glad that I did. The week before, Mum and I had gone Christmas shopping on Oxford St (I suffer this once a year, every year, for Mum alone), and when Ben and Tony met us for dinner we found ourselves wandering for ages, eventually getting a table outside in the freezing cold. I was determined not to make the same mistake again. Ponti’s was close to where the final part of our night was to play out, and tucked away on Princes Street it is a haven from the mania of Oxford Street and the shops.
The interior is a bit of a hybrid between restaurant and bar, but it was cosy and we felt right at home. We started off with a Bellini each (well, it was our Christmas outing!), and I indulged in their wonderful Lemon and Sage Cooler, which was refreshing and quite summery. Apologies for the terrible photos – it was dark and I took them quickly on my phone! For our dinner, we shared the mozzarella garlic bread. Hardly groundbreaking, but oh so good! I then followed this up with Tagliatelle with Sausage. I honestly can’t remember what Anna had (possibly pizza?), but it was rated as very good. I swear we had dessert as well, but again I don’t remember what it was (blame it on the final part of our night for blanking this out of my memory). It’s incredibly bad going of me not to have photos or descriptions, but all I can tell you is that the food is amazing, the atmosphere is good and the staff are friendly and helpful. The food was good value for money and I will certainly be returning soon (after which I will be writing a proper review!)
Then it was time for the finale. We were off to see Cats.
I have never seen Cats before, and had literally no concept of what it was about. I knew that the song ‘Memory’ came from there, and I had a vague idea that the word ‘jellicle’ appeared in it, but other than that I was stumped. I did know that it was a classic musical, however, and Anna and I had booked tickets months ago as soon as they went on sale. An extra draw was that Nicole Scherzinger would be appearing as one of the characters, Grizabella.
It turns out that Cats is utterly bonkers. Based on the T.S. Eliot collection of poems, ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, the plot is incredibly thin and largely structured around the words of the poems (by request of the Eliot estate, there was no script and only the original poems were used as text, which makes it awfully confusing at times!). The basic premise is that there are a group of superior cats called Jellicle Cats, and once every year the Jellicle Ball is held, where Old Deuteronomy, their leader, will make the ‘Jellicle Choice’ and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn a new cat. Nicole Scherzinger’s character, Grizabella, is an exiled cat, once glamorous and well-loved, but now disgraced and alone.
That, essentially, is all you need to know. The characters are odd, the names are weird (Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer anyone?) and the words are even weirder. But that doesn’t matter, because the dancing – oh, the dancing! These people are artists, and flung themselves across the stage with superb acrobatic skill. We were enthralled from the start, not to mention envious of the men and women who could fit themselves into all-over skin tight Lycra and contort themselves into weird and wonderful positions without making themselves look like a bag of sausages. They were all wonderfully graceful, and it was a treat to watch them.
I was also a big fan of the set. The stage is set up as a junkyard, oversized to give a cat’s eye view perspective. Dazzling blue lights trailed up from the stage into the big empty space between the seats and the stage wall, making it look like a magical fairground. These lights changed colours a few times throughout the show, adding to this strange quality. It was very clearly a product of the 80s, what with the set and the costumes and the Lloyd Webber score.
Now, onto the big question: was Nicole Scherzinger any good? I confess, having only heard bits of her singing career before, first in the Pussycat Dolls and then solo, I was of the opinion that her voice was probably half decent, but was accentuated with the help of studio recordings.
Boy, was I wrong.
When she sang Memory in the closing stages of the show, the whole theatre was stunned. Her voice is epic. Strong, deep, reaching the bass tones and soaring to a high pitch, all pulled off effortlessly. She was amazing. The rest of her performance was good, and I think having someone so well known as the outcast worked very well, because she was always going to be set apart from her colleagues, and instead of ignoring that the production company lived up to and accentuated that difference. She was alone, but magnetic. She stole every scene she was in, and not even just because of her celebrity. She was a pleasure to watch, and to all the haters out there, back off!
So, in summary? Cats is big, bold and bonkers, but utterly unmissable. Anna and I had a wonderful time, and the show has just had its West End run extended until April, so if you can grab a ticket, I highly recommend it! Nicole Scherzinger is in it until the end of this month.
Have you been to see Cats? What did you think? I’d love to hear from you!