London: Prince of Wales Theatre and British Museum

We took a trip to the capital to catch a musical and visit the British Museum

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In May, we went on a little overnight trip to London for a bit of culture (and comedy). We booked theatre tickets, hotel and train tickets with SuperBreak, who we’ve used before to get good deals on London theatre tickets. The package we got was very reasonable—but, as always, we had to make sure we had enough time to get from the hotel to the theatre, as the ‘1.2 miles’ distance feels like an awful lot further when you’re switching between Tube lines!

We stayed at the Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel (bit of a mouthful)—which is an awful lot bigger and fancier than the places we normally stay. By booking through SuperBreak, we’d got a room and breakfast for a very low price, so we were a bit taken aback by how shiny and polished everything looked (most of the places we’ve stayed in London have been a bit more ‘budget’). Unfortunately, when we went to book in, there was a bit of a panic as our booking hadn’t actually been sent through to the hotel so they had no record of our reservation—for a moment it looked like we wouldn’t be staying in the big shiny hotel after all. However, we really could not fault the attitude of the staff members we spoke to. They were so pleasant and helpful, and rang straight through to resolve the issue with SuperBreak. Within ten minutes, they’d confirmed our reservation, apologized profusely, given us drinks vouchers to make up for it, and shown us to our room—which was an awful lot fancier than we were expecting! I don’t know if we got upgraded because the hotel was busy (there was a wedding on) or if that’s a standard room in this hotel, but the bedroom was huge!

Anyway, enough about the hotel—though it did deserve a mention for being the nicest we’ve stayed in on a SuperBreak deal and for having absolutely lovely staff—and on to our real reason for visiting London.

Prince of Wales Theatre

We’ve titled this with the name of the theatre, but that’s perhaps a bit misleading, as it was the show we came to see rather than the building. We had tickets for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent musical The Book of Mormon.

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Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) and Robert Lopez (co-writer of Avenue Q), The Book of Mormon first opened on Broadway in 2011 and made its West End debut in 2013. As fans of South Park, we were pretty aware of what to expect from the show: it’s a religious satire that is simultaneously wildly offensive and deeply critical of offensive ideologies. It tells the story of two naïve young Mormons—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (played by Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, reprising their Broadway roles) who are sent to Uganda as missionaries. Once there, they meet people whose lives are blighted by AIDS, poverty and war—but, nevertheless, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham blithely cling to their understanding that their new acquaintances’ lives will improve once they are introduced to the teachings of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

It’s darkly satirical, but it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story

The above paragraph is an awfully dry way of describing the show, and it doesn’t really do it justice. We were expecting something funny, obnoxious and controversial—being familiar with Parker and Stone’s other work—but that description also doesn’t do justice to The Book of Mormon. Although it is just as outrageous as South Park—with very few topics that are off-limits for comedy purposes—and it is darkly satirical of Mormon practice and doctrine, it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story about two well-meaning (though misguided) young men who truly believe they can make a difference in people’s lives. While the religion itself is roundly mocked (along with an awful lot of other things), its practitioners are treated with a sort of affection. In terms of the show’s depiction of Uganda, the show treads a really difficult line between using horrible circumstances to get (sometimes uncomfortable) laughs and poking fun at the naivety of Western attempts to understand these circumstances. Some of the jokes are pretty cheap and crude, and some rely on horrendous stereotypes, but—as with South Park—the ground is constantly shifting, with everything and everyone becoming a potential target for mockery.

We expected this sort of humour—surely no one would buy a ticket for The Book of Mormon if they expected something different?—but we weren’t really sure what to expect in terms of the music. Obviously, knowing the sort of songs that have appeared in South Park and Team America: World Police, we knew there’d be some very silly—but very catchy—songs, but we weren’t sure how it would stack up as a musical. On this score, we were very pleasantly surprised, as The Book of Mormon is a show that knows its musical theatre history and presents it (just as it presents everything) with a mixture of satire and fondness.

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The show’s narrative follows a very familiar arc for fans of musicals—even resolving the seemingly impossible crisis that faces the protagonists with an utterly ludicrous musical salvation—and the songs themselves are written in the usual Broadway styles. In fact, the musical numbers almost work as a rundown of the key styles found elsewhere in musical theatre, gently lampooning these through the contrast of the ‘nice’ style to the (often) crass and controversial lyrics. Many of the songs are almost—almost—spoofs of other famous Broadway hits, though this is done with a surprisingly light touch in places. Perhaps the clearest parodies are ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ and ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’, in which you can clearly hear the musical echoes of ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ at various points in the song. What’s great about these numbers is that, not only is the musical inspiration really clear, the lyrics of each also lampoon the content and sentiment of their inspiration. That’s abundantly clear in the case of ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’, which is pretty much a straightforward parody of the message of ‘Hakuna Matata’ (and this is underlined by Elder Cunningham asking if the phrase means ‘no worries, for the rest of your days’—‘not exactly’ is the answer he receives), but we really liked the way ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’ mocks the idea of friendship as presented in Wicked by repeatedly reminding the audience that one of the friends is a bit more of a diva than the other (which, to be honest, is exactly what happens in ‘Defying Gravity’ as soon as Elphaba hits that high note).

The Book of Mormon is probably not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Parker and Stone’s other work then it’s a definite recommendation.

The British Museum

The following day we decided to take a trip to the British Museum. I’m not sure that this institution needs much of an introduction, and it’s somewhere we’ve been several times.

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Photo: Ham via Creative Commons

On this occasion, we had tickets for the museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition, a collection of hundreds of artefacts with a 37-metre-long warship at the centre. We actually heard about this exhibition in a rather unusual way—when we were on honeymoon in Norway in March, we visited Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, where we saw that several items had been removed from display in order to go on loan to an upcoming British Museum exhibition. So we were very keen to visit the BM Vikings exhibition when it opened.

I don’t know if Oslo spoilt us—we visited the Viking Ship Museum as well as the Historical Museum—but we found the BM’s exhibition very disappointing. It was very overcrowded, making it almost impossible to see some display cases. The information accompanying the displays was patchy—some boards had ‘dumbed down’ explanations too much, and there were a number of places where the information contradicted what we’d learnt in Oslo (and, in the case of one board about literature and storytelling, contradicted what Hannah knows from her doctoral research in Medieval Studies). All in all, it seemed a rather poorly thought-out experience—though it clearly succeeded in drawing big crowds (surely Vikings always do?), it failed in an attempt to educate or enthuse people about history. We ended up squeezing through the last little bit of the display as quickly as we could, so that we could go and look at some of the better arranged displays in the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, while the ‘big name’ exhibitions can be rather hit-and-miss, the museum itself remains as wonderful as ever. The museum was established by an act of Parliament in 1753, to house the collection of Hans Sloane. In 1757, King George II donated the Old Royal Library collection of around 2000 manuscripts, which carried with it the privilege of copyright receipt. The museum was housed in Montagu House, Great Russell Street and opened to the public (‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library

The library expanded massively in the decades that followed, receiving donations of natural history specimens, antiquities and books from a variety of bequests. By the time George IV donated his father’s King’s Library collection in 1822, Montagu House had been deemed insufficient for the museum’s needs. Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library. His quadrangular neo-classical building replaced Montagu House, and was opened to the public in 1857. However, the museum’s collections continued to grow, even while the new building was under construction, and so decisions were made to augment Smirke’s designs with additional galleries, and even to move some collections to alternative premises. In the 1880s, the natural history collections were moved to premises in South Kensington, initially called the British Museum (Natural History) but later renamed the Natural History Museum.

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Photo: lena1 via Creative Commons

The British Museum Library also continued to expand rapidly, and it also needed a new home. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke’s original design was also filled with the now-iconic cast iron, concrete and glass Reading Room (designed by Robert’s brother Sydney Smirke), which was also opened in 1857. This remained the library’s home until the British Library Act 1972 created an independent entity (the British Library), which was finally moved to purpose-built premises in St Pancras in 1997.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Reading Room hosted a number of special exhibitions. In fact, the last exhibition we went to was housed in the Reading Room—Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. However, by the time the Vikings exhibition was staged, a new gallery had been constructed for housing temporary exhibitions—the future of the Reading Room is currently uncertain (and the museum have been carrying out consultation on its potential future use). The new gallery was certainly better suited to the Vikings exhibition—we’re not sure how well they could’ve displayed a 120-foot warship in the Reading Room—however, we did miss the ‘feel’ of the historical Reading Room, which had been used to good effect in previous exhibitions (Hannah’s personal favourite was the Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe in 2011, which made very good use of the exhibition space).

We meandered around some of the other galleries for a peaceful, unhurried look

On this occasion, we cut our visit to the (ticketed) exhibition short and meandered around some of the other galleries instead. We didn’t have any particular items or artefacts that we wanted to see, though it was good to be able to get a (peaceful, unhurried) look at some pieces that were contemporaneous with the items selected for the Vikings display (e.g. the Lewis Chessmen—only a couple of which were moved to the temporary exhibition, the rest remained in their usual display—and the Sutton Hoo helmet).

And with that, our trip to London came to an end. Unusually, we travelled home separately—Rob had to book an earlier train to Manchester so he could get back to Manchester for a Nine Inch Nails gig, while Hannah waited for the (very cheap) train that she’d booked as part of the package deal. So, by the time we both got home, we’d managed to cram in a controversial West End musical, a fancy hotel, Vikings, the British Museum and Trent Reznor—not a bad weekend, all in all.

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