A couple of nights ago, a friend and I hit the West End of London to enjoy the Christmassy vibe and, certainly on my part, remind myself that you don’t always need to travel far to be a tourist.
I popped up at Charing Cross station and walked my way over to Covent Garden. I forget, sometimes, how different the West End is to the rest of London – while we carry on our businesslike existence, tromping streets to and from work (and occasionally the pub), doing our grocery shopping and scurrying along with our heads down. The West End is different. This is what the tourists see when they visit London – bright, trendy shop windows, uber cool markets, excited people with their head’s up and shoulders down. This time of year it’s particularly glammorous with the swathes of Christmas lights sparkling above everyone’s heads, giant Christmas trees towering in squares and carols tinkling and blaring in equal measure.
We had dinner at Bill’s, between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, surrounded by towering shelves of jams, chutneys, home-made lemonades and ginger-bread women wearing happy smiles and patterned aprons. Bill’s has the feel of a once-off deli/restaurant, which is impressive for a place which has become part of a brand in its own right. You could be in a cozy Cotswold village, or an Italian square, just as easily as in the hustle and bustle of London.
But if I were to recommend one thing to do in the West End this Christmas, I would recommend going to see Dickens Abridged. Many years ago I went to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company performing the Complete works of Shakespeare (forwards and backwards, in some cases) and remember laughing so hard I was worried that I’d ruptured my spleen. 13 years later, Dickens Abridged is the work of (dare I say it?) a more mature group of players – and I call them players for a reason. Much like the Elizabethan players who travelled around entertaining crowds with their performances, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, lead by Adam Long, don’t just act: there are fast costume changes from a limited wardrobe, clever props, brilliant performances on musical instruments and, above all, wit. It was extremely funny, fast-paced and so very clever – the bluegrass-style Dickens vs California ‘mash-up’ (as Long calls it) is actually quite breath-taking. But more than the laugh-out-loud and nudge-your-neighbour hilarity, I enjoyed the light and shade their performance brings – there were moments of unutterably poignancy in between – this is why I thought Dickens Abridged was so exceptional. You skate along on the aching-sides of laughter until you’re brought short abruptly, your emotions played like the fiddle so ably wielded in the performance itself.
If you’re in London and do nothing else this Christmas, avoid the twee Christmas specials and go and see this play: your gift to yourself.