London Theatre

August 27th & 28th

On the Monday Bank Holiday I suddenly realized that this was my final full week in London. Over the weekend I booked my Scotland trip for August 30th-September 4th, and my Turkey trip with Megan had been settled months ago to run from September 6th-9th. I fly out early morning of the 10th and . . . well, that’s it. That’s the end of my summer in London. How to make this final week count?

Go to the theatre, of course!

I’d discovered that Les Misérables was playing in the West End soon after I arrived in June and I always intended to go. I love the music; I used to play Les Mis songs on the piano for practice, and when I was 15 and babysitting I got to watch the tape of the traveling stage show – the one with no sets, but where the cast just stands and sings at microphones – after I put the kids to bed one night. But I’d never seen the full professional stage version, and what better place to see it than in London?

So on Tuesday I rode my usual bus past my stop and found another bus to take me down Shaftesbury Avenue, which along with Charing Cross Road and nearby Covent Garden & Leicester Square forms the heart of London’s theatre district. But before that I had my second major celebrity sighting. (My first was Bette Midler walking through the West Palm Beach airport when I was 15 or 16.) But yes: the bus is lurching along Clerkenwell Road, I’m tired from a long day at work and staring absently out my second-level window. (I never read on the bus or tube; I get too anxious that I’ll lose track of time and miss my stop.) We were just reaching the point where we cross over the railroad tracks from Farringdon Station, and lo and behold, there’s Keira Knightley walking down the sidewalk, hand-in-hand with who I can only assume is her boyfriend. Seriously. Keira Knightley.

I did a total double take in my seat. I wasn’t sure at first – I couldn’t quite believe it – but my bus passed her twice in the stop-and-go traffic, and I am convinced it was really her. I may or may not had had my face pressed against the glass to get a better look. I believe my seatmate was looking at me strangely, but I didn’t care. There was a real live celebrity to study!

She was wearing a cute sweater dress and eyeglasses with thick dark frames . . . I suppose as a disguise? I guess it was working because there were no paparazzi around trying to take photos. Amusingly enough I didn’t think the boyfriend was that great – he looked kind of greasy to me. But I mostly looked at Keira, trying to make sure it was really her. She was laughing and smiling and looked like she was having a fantastic day. It was quite sweet as far as celebrity sightings go.

That excitement out of the way, I made it to the Queen’s Theatre where I bought my ticket for Les Mis the following night. The cheapest seats were £15 but offered a very limited view, so I decided to spring for the marginally better £20 seats. The next day I went to the theatre straight from work. I was so early that they weren’t allowing people to be seated yet, so I waited with a few other early arrivals. A guy standing across the hall from me noted I was alone. “All by yourself?” he asked. I just smiled and nodded. Once inside I found my seat – quite high up and very close to the outside aisle – and a minute later the same guy came up to me. “Would you like to sit closer?” he asked. “I asked the usher and he said it was fine.”

At first I thought he was saying that he had an extra ticket, and I was trying to weigh in my mind the benefits of being closer versus sitting next to a strange guy. I’d already decided screw it, sitting closer is always worth it, when I realized he actually wanted to switch seats. He said something about needing to be closer to – something, I couldn’t quite hear in my amazement; maybe the aisle? – and I quickly said sure. We swapped tickets and I happily went down to a fantastic seat close to the middle of the balcony. What luck! I still have no idea what the guy actually wanted as I never saw him again in the crush of getting out; but it was an incredibly nice gesture all the same – especially as I discovered later that his generosity had placed me in the £40 section of seats.

The show without question was incredible. I am so glad that I made the effort to see it. The music of course was gorgeous – I knew that going in – but it was so entertaining to actually see the story acted out, to find out what linked these songs that I pretty much know by heart.

During intermission the refreshments came out. I never cease to be amazed at the British practice of eating and drinking in their seats at a stage theatre. Popcorn & candy at the movies, of course, but during a play? No way! They even serve alcohol – every theatre has a bar frequented by patrons during the show. It’s perfectly normal to see people sitting in their seats enjoying a glass of wine.

“Is that ice cream?” I boggled as way of introduction to the girl sitting next to me. Near the door the usher, swarmed by children, was indeed selling half pints of Häagen-Dazs. The girl, who turned out to be from Lithuania and was in London for a conference, cheerfully shared my amazement. We had a friendly conversation about those crazy Britons, how much we loved Les Mis, and what we were doing in London.

“So, where are you from in Lithuania?” I asked, because I always love learning more about people’s experiences in their own countries.

“I’m from the capital,” she said airily. Then, with a knowing smile, “Surely you know it?”

“Um,” I said, as I realized with a start that, while I had certainly heard of the capital of Lithuania before, it had completely slipped my mind at that moment. Meanwhile, the girl was smiling at me, knowing that I didn’t know her country’s capital and pleased as punch with herself.

“Ah, all I can think of is Riga, and I know that’s the capital of Latvia,” I laughed nervously, vainly attempting to appear not such an ignorant American.

“No,” she agreed, grinning smugly in her triumph. “It’s Vilnius.”

“Oh! Yes! Vilnius!” I said, and much to my relief the curtain arose soon after and I could turn my attention back to the show. Talk about awkward and exasperating. We were having such a nice conversation, girl; why did you have to put me on the spot like that? I’d never try to quiz someone on my own country. Oh well. If the point was to prove I’m a dumb American, I suppose I failed. Sorry USA! I am a poor representative.

After this, however, you can be sure I will never, never forget the capital of Lithuania.

The following night I went to Spamalot, which was playing at the Palace Theatre at the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. I love Monty Python, especially the Holy Grail movie, and knew I couldn’t pass it up. It was great fun and they were so inventive with the way they worked in jokes from the TV show and the other movies – combining the Dead Parrot sketch with the swallows & coconuts bit, and having the limbless, defeated Black Knight sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Loved it, and luckily I had no strange seatmates!