Pre-theatre Meat Marvel at Byron’s in Waterloo

photoProper hamburgers. That’s the war-cry of Byron. And whether you fancy a little something chilli, veggie or a good old-fashioned classic burger, they don’t fail to deliver their promise.

It’s amazing how often a simple burger can let you down. Imagine the scenario: you are suddenly debilitated by the Carnivore Principle: that familiar craving that creeps suddenly up on you until nothing but a quarter pound of compacted meat will do. The stuff that dreams are made of. You must eat meat. It must be now. So often, the bun of your imagination is filled with greedy promise, oozing juiciness that has you dribbling saliva. The reality is so different. You’re delivered up a mediocre slab of dry, tasteless beef – the kind of patty that would make the cow that gave its life to satisfy your yearning turn in its grave.

Byron burgers are different. They don’t make threats they can’t see through. They’re succulent, dripping with moisture, have just the right amount of mayonnaise and a gherkin on the side (this in itself is genius – put the blessed thing on the side! Of course!) These burgers are the perfect celebration of how good ground beef can be. Just as it is. And all for under £40. Scottish cows would be proud of their sacrifice.

The Waterloo branch is really quite unassuming from the outside. Imagine a launderette three huge windows wide, bright lights blaring into the dark January street and you’ll have some idea of what we’re talking about. For that’s what it looks like: a hotchpotch of signs span its three windows and a little condensation hazes up the glass. But, don’t be fooled. Its slipshod exterior is hiding a dark secret. This place cares more about the meat than the perfect design aesthetic.

This is no lay-by greasy spoon though. Inside, there’s an unaffected Americana vibe. It’s like a hip canteen with no airs and graces – the plaster has been scraped off the walls to reveal the century old London stock beneath. The chairs are the kind you fell off when you shouldn’t have been rocking at school. This place is all about simplicity. Honesty. And it really is no-nonsense: the décor, the menu, and the food. They get the job done and that’s all you can ask.

If you’re hungry and only a burger will do, this is the place. They have branches in London, Oxford and Kent – and they’ve even gone mobile (you can follow their ‘shack’ on twitter). But look closely at their website and you’ll realise it’s not just the Byron burger that’s all heart. Byron has raised £120,000 participating in Movember since 2010. It’s impressive…it’s meat with a conscience – what could be more perfect? Already I feel the Carnivore Principle slowly reaching through my limbs again. November 2013 might be time to sample the MOburger…all in a good cause of course!

Out Now: The Sapphires

Soul music is about loss. So says inept Irish manager, Dave (played by lovable oddball Chris O’Dowd). The Sapphires is about four Aborigine women making their way as a soul group in 1968. Under the tutelage of hapless Dave, they sing their way through the chaos of the Vietnam war and become an unlikely success story. Entertaining the troops, they heal the wounds that have divided them, create a few new rifts, find passion and love.

This is a story of colour. But not necessarily skin colour as you might expect. It’s about the vibrant yellow of the rapeseed field you ran through as a child; the brilliant colour of freshly-picked oranges; the burst of sun on the horizon even in a field of war. And, of course, the sapphire blue of soul. Yes, the girls come under attack for their Aboriginal heritage but it’s done with such lightness of touch, you forget the real adversity these women would have faced and remember to admire their courage and heart. Instead of hammering you over the head with the race card, the movie is somehow a celebration of culture and heritage without the need to really turn the screw.

Chris O’Dowd is inspired as the inebriate manager brought back to life by the vigour and spirit of the Sapphires. His charming scruffiness, acerbic wit and simple sincerity are one of the joys of the movie but he also manages to be truly touching in all the right places as he falls in love with feisty Gail, played by Deborah Mailman. For her part, Mailman adds a ferocity of her own to her performance of the big sister brimming with strength but laced with a secret vulnerabiltiy. Between them, we get some of the best lines of the movie, littered with a joyous mix of Aussie and Irish slang. Incidentally, the moment when O’Dowd answers a group of boys hailing him as a ‘drongo’ with ‘gobshites’ is simply genius.

At the end of the movie, it’s a pleasant surprise to find it’s been inspired by a true story. A surprise but not surpirisng since women of daring who fight prejudice and inspire us with their bravery are the stuff of everyday, aren’t they? Sadly, they don’t always get translated so lovingly and humorously to the movie screen. In the words of The Sapphires: ‘deadly’!

A Perfect Day in Lisbon

The capital city of Portugal has plenty to offer for an urban weekend this autumn – whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend, a shopping marathon or even a sleepy retreat. Here are my tips on how to spend a day the perfect way.

Breakfast

Start your day the right way: with a pastry the size of your head! You can’t go far wrong at the Café Nicola on the Praça Dom Pedro. Oversized pastries and traditional Portuguese custard tarts line the 1930s style counter and, once you’ve polished off your breakfast, you’re at the heart of the city for the start of a busy day. Just a word of warning: if you order the omelette, expect a side order of chips!

From here, get on an open top-bus and head for the Monastery of Jerónimos – an excellent base for a tour of the Garden of Belém, the Archeology Museum and even a stroll to the top of the Torre de Belém – a fortified tower on the edge of the sea.

Lunch

All this walking deserves a hearty lunch. Not far from the Torre de Belém is a bustling marina – the Doca Santo Amaro. The water’s edge is lined with stylish restaurants serving fresh fish, Italian food…even typical Irish fayre! We opted for Capricciosa. Sound suspiciously Italian for a Portuguese city? There is plenty of loal food – if you can stomach the salt. Having sampled the turbot the evening before, my arteries needed a break! Reasonably priced, chic and modern, Capricciosa is a lovely place to dribble spaghetti down your chin whilst looking out to the Cristo Rei (the statue of Christ) on the horizon. Picturesque it may be but peaceful it’s not. This tiny dock sits almost directly beneath the 25 de Abril Bridge – the 21st largest suspension bridge in the world. All six lanes of traffic do make their presence known but they don’t spoil the laid-back atmosphere. The noise is like a coven of insects buzzing in the distance – you could even call it soothing at a stretch. If it really bothers you, there’s plenty of tables inside.

Hop on the bus back to the city centre and stroll around the shops of Chiado. A few streets away from the busy high street, there is a little more atmosphere and charm to the boutiques on offer here. Deliberately get yourself lost in the backstreets and side alleys. You never know what you’ll find. One of the treats of Lisbon is its shops don’t discriminate against location – you’ll find weird and wonderful shops in the most unlikely of places.

Dinner

Meander down the Rua Alecrim towards the sea in the distance. Down this unassuming street lies an unassuming blackboard – the kind you find greasy layby burger vans. The kind your instinct tells you not to trust. But don’t be fooled. As the sign says, the Mesón Andaluzreally does have the ‘best tapas in Lisbon’. This isn’t an idle threat. Vaulted ceilings and low lighting make this an intimate spot. The service is genuinely friendly and they have the most mouth-watering tortilla I’ve ever tasted. Seriously good eggs dished up by seriously good eggs.

After dinner drinks have to be at Pavilhão Chinês (The Chinese Pavillion) on the Rua Dom Pedro. It’s a short walk up hill but stop off and catch your breath at the Garden of San Pedro for a view of the city set on fire by the twinkle of street lamps. A kind of magic toyshop of a bar, the Pavilhão Chinês is dripping in memorabilia dating from the building’s art deco roots to modern day. The walls are lined with carved masks, nude paintings and toby jugs – there’s even a Queen’s guard greeting you at the door. Imagine Mrs. Havisham as an interior designer and you’ll be in the ball park. Or, as Mr. Nathan so eloquently put it: ‘it’s like something from the twisted mind of David Dickenson’. Succint but right as always!

Be warned: when you get to the front door, you will want to turn and run but be brave! This is a gentleman’s club of the past with a whole brochure of cocktails to choose from – its pages illustrated with risque Vaudeville beauties. Drinks are brought to your table by red-waiscoated waiters. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect day…and you can even play pool.

Where to Stay

We spent a weekend in the Sheraton Lisboa Hotel and Spa on the Rua Latino Coelho, which is luxurious to say the least. The corridor walls are clad in dark leather spiked with spotlights – like a padded cell you won’t want to leave. The double room was nothing short of space age, with its glass cubed bathroom and electronic blinds. And if you can wriggle out of your straight-jacket, there’s a range of spa treatments fit for a Queen…or you can take in the view from the panoramic bar. Plush. Twenty minutes walk from the city centre but worth the effort. (2 room double deluxe cost £145 for two nights from lateroom.com)

Still not Convinced? Five Reasons to Visit Lisbon Right Now:

  1. It’s a mere 2 and a half hour flight from Liverpool.
  2. It’s warm…even in light showers (15-20 degrees in autumn).
  3. The air is scented with roasting chestnuts.
  4. Where else will you see police darting about the city on segways?
  5. The taxi drivers’ utter dedication to 1990s rock music (think Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams). And, yes, that’s a good thing!

The Country Wife at The Royal Exchange, Manchester

Wisdom according to William Wycherley: ‘If a woman wants wit in a corner, she has it nowhere.’ Funny? Certainly. True? Couldn’t possibly comment. Offensive? Holy hell, yes. But The Country Wife was always meant to be controversial. In the 17th Century, it was practically obscene and sparked protests amongst ‘women of honour’ when it was first performed. Nowadays, it’s little more than a delicious Benny Hill-esque rampage (except Benny is wearing tights and a wig).

A typical farce, the play gives us Mr Horner, the notorious rake who’s bedded one too many wives to be trusted around women. Fortunately, our pesky friend has a solution – impotence! Pretending to be a eunuch, his little plot thickens (forgive me – the Benny Hill bug is catching!)

In a nanosecond, the rumour of Horner’s castration abounds and men are practically throwing their wives at his ‘harmless’ feet. They are only to happy to be ‘taken the back way’ to the theatre (yes, it really does show how much humour has matured in the past 400 years!) Only one man jealously guards his innocent ‘country wife’ from the clutches of Horner’s infamy. Mr. Pinchwife doesn’t trust Horner within an inch (or let’s say six and a half inches on average) of his naive bride Margery. As it turns out, Margery has quite a lot of wit in a corner…but absolutely none elsewhere. Funny that.

I laughed. A bit. It was better than watching the X Factor. I think. But I did fidget…and that’s never a good sign. No doubt this is a lack of intelligence: I couldn’t appreciate the restoration charm. The language was beyond me. That must be it. Or maybe Wycherley’s schoolboy humour is wasted on a feminist. Even one who can take a joke. It couldn’t have been the stomping actors, surely? I must have missed this episode of The Actors’ Studio on Sky. You know, the one that preaches heavy-footed plodding around the stage that drowns out what might just be scintillating dialogue. Some of the best lines were literally trodden on.

Margery Pinchwife (played by Amy Morgan) was the only real gift of the evening. Tiny, blonde and a voice like out-of-tune Christmas bells. Think Stacey (of Gavin and Stacey fame) only far less irritating and much more shrewd. Morgan’s portrayal of the Welsh ‘country wife’ was full of wit…everyone else should go and stand in a corner!

The Country Wife plays at The Royal Exchange in Manchester until 20th October.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Book choices generally go like this: either I’m lured in by the Kindle recommendation (too smart for its own good if you ask me), or else I shamefacedly resort to Richard and Judy. Recently I decided enough was enough. It was high time to read something cold – venture out into the intrepid world of literature and discover.

My little quest led me to another little quest. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is just too delicious a title to resist – hinting, as it does, at the decidedly humble character caught off-guard by the tantalisingly unexpected. And, with poor Harold Fry, that’s exactly what we get.

Harold has recently retired from his lifelong job at a brewery. So now he is facing the daily torture of life with Maureen, the wife attempting to rid decades of misery from their marriage with only the aid of a scouring pad and a very clean pair of net curtains. Little of significance has passed between Mr and Mrs Fry for a very long time. Their conversations are deafeningly silent: a few shorthand words standing in for an awful lot of unsaid feelings.

When Harold receives a letter from Queenie, an old colleague who is dying, he sets out to post a reply and is struck with an extraordinary impulse to walk. It’s an impulse that takes him away from himself and his little life and yet, somehow, it also takes him inexorably back. Perhaps the book should be called: The Excavation of Harold Fry’s Flesh and Blood. For that’s what his journey is: the moulding of his limbs back together Humpty Dumpty style. And through every step he takes, we follow him, cheering all the way.

This is the tale of simple people with simple problems – tragic and ordinary at the same time. It is a celebration of the average man’s feats of brilliance; just as the prose celebrates the beautifully succinct. There is no sentence overloaded with literary grandness or full of its own self-importance. Joyce manages to be both artful and economical with description and what a joy it is. If you don’t want to climb from your sofa and head off out on a journey of your own, you have no soul!