Tag Archives: Barbican

London Slant: What’s inside London’s three new cultural caskets?

It’s a year since a red inverted table called The Shed appeared at London’s Southbank. This temporary theatre’s first play, appropriately set around a table passed down through generations of a family, kicked off a string of full-house hits. Now this rough timber building with a fringe vibe has had its planning licence extended until 2017. Could it end up a permanent landmark alongside its neighbouring once-temporary structure, the London Eye? As a showcase for edgy works that are tapping a new, younger audience, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t run and run.

The Shed, National Theatre, London's South Bank

Extended run: The Shed at London’s Southbank Centre frames St Paul’s.

It’s just one of three timber boxes that have freshly sprouted in London’s cultural hubs. A short amble along the Thames leads to another fizzing theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also been packing ’em in since Bond girl Gemma Arterton took to the stage as the Duchess of Malfi a few months back.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The gorgeous candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.

This intimate “jewel box” is a real feast for the senses. You don’t just wander in and sit down. You wait until invited to make your entrance: just stepping inside is a piece of theatre in itself. The scent of the hand-crafted oak auditorium wafts over you as you step among flickering beeswax candles, the only source of light. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim glow they wander from the richly patterned backdrop up to the ceiling, a celestial scene of cherubs among clouds.

On the occasion of my audience with The Duchess, I took my seat as strolling minstrels in Elizabethan garb appeared onstage playing viols and lutes. Then came figures in fabulous ruffs and pantaloons bearing tapers. Chandeliers came spiralling down from the ceiling which they lit with great bravura to enthusiastic applause. Now it was time for the performance to begin.

Sam Wanamaker ceiling

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling, lit by candles in revolving chandeliers.

If the Sam Wanamaker has been designed to reflect a true Jacobean-era night out, right down to its bum-numbing benches, the opposite is true at the high-tech Milton Court Concert Hall. The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s new performance space boasts indulgently bum-hugging seats. From its light-flooded glass lobby with a Martin Creed artwork to its white ceiling and walls, this 600-capacity hall feels fresh yet surprisingly intimate. And yes, it too features masses of wood—in this case sapele, a native African cousin of mahogany often used to make musical instruments. The acoustics are superb.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The intimate Milton Court Concert Hall.

The Hall hosts concerts by the school’s musicians alongside performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Britten Sinfonia, bookable through the adjacent Barbican Centre. It’s part of a complex that also include two new theatres, which I’ve yet to sample but could well take my tally of beautiful new boxes to five.


Photography: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Pete Le May; Milton Court Concert Hall by Morley von Sternberg



Who needs the hassle of long haul travel when you live in London? You can just sit put and let the world come to you. I certainly felt as though I was in Bali at a concert of the island’s music and dance the other night.

London gamelan

Dancer moves to the rhythm of the Balinese gamelan.

I might have been sitting in St Luke’s church near Old Street tube, but in my mind it was years ago when I visited a temple in Bali’s central hills. Then, devotees in elaborate costumes performed rituals against a backdrop of emerald rice paddies. But what I most remember was the music. A gamelan orchestra of xylophone-like instruments and gongs played hypnotic, flowing sequences of rippling notes.

I’ve remained on red alert for gamelan music ever since.  And, I’ve discovered, you can find it all over London, from the South Bank to the Horniman Museum. I was listening to the LSO St Luke’s Community Gamelan Group. Anyone is welcome to join their Monday evening practice sessions to learn how to play. Plus they regularly put on performances to sell-out crowds.

Last Friday evening St Luke’s was joined by Lila Cita, the UK’s leading Balinese gamelan group. The two teams of musicians came together in a lively concert that powered along at a lick.

The scene was set with ranks of elaborate gold and scarlet metallophones ready to ring out when struck by shark’s tooth hammers. To either side were glittering parasols and giant gongs. On came the performers: men and women in sarongs, crimson military-style jackets and blouses, with flowers in their hair. The drums struck up and they launched into cascading, classical pieces like Golden Rain. These mixed with more challenging contemporary pieces such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine, an exciting arrangement of John Adams’ 1986 composition for a western symphony orchestra.

London gamelan

A fascinating instrument: an exotic creature with red pom-pom cymbals on its back.

Then came the dancers, in their shimmering brocades. First on was 7-year-old Maya Channing, tap-dancing for her first time in public as she elegantly enacted the misadventures of a naughty Balinese pig. Next were ceremonial dances by sinuous ladies and ferocious-looking men.

London gamelan

Men perform a martial arts dance.

By now the gamelan had drifted into the background, letting the performers take centre stage. I enjoyed its gently tumbling notes as much as the earlier, more distinctive set pieces. It brought back the temple music in Bali that was played as an accompaniment to offerings to the gods.

*Watch out for more performances coming up at St Luke’s and by Lila Cita. If you’re reading this at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the evening’s programme noted that one of the performers is running gamelan projects in UK prisons.


The Barbican in London has a long-standing reputation as somewhere you can never find your way around. The route between the tube station and concert hall is so hard to fathom that a yellow line is painted on the pavement, an Ariadne’s thread to lead you to your show. But should you think you’re grappling with a labyrinth, spare a thought for the actors and stage hands. I’ve just been on the fascinating Hidden Barbican tour and discovered that the backstage area is even more maze-like than front of house.

Hidden Barbican

Welcome to London’s Barbican Centre, and the Hidden Barbican tour.

We set off  with our guide, the well-informed and charming Olga, who began by leading us through a door marked “Gentlemen’s Showers”. As someone who is used to ending up in the Barbican chair store when I’m aiming for the bar, it came as no surprise Continue reading


When I asked a friend to join me for an outlandish cultural event she replied, somewhat hesitantly I thought, that she would, but only because nowadays “only the weirdest experiences will do”. Given that I’ve recently paid to have a black hood thrown over my head and be driven in a van around Shoreditch as if being arrested by government forces in Syria, I can see what she means.

On the black hood scale, this week’s art outing was rather tame. But the Rain Room at the Barbican does have its dark side. You walk into a low-lit chamber shot with streaks of lights that dazzle in the gloom. One minute you’re inside the Curve Gallery and all is normal. The next you’re stepping into a monsoon downpour, which is thoroughly strange when you know you’re inside a huge hall. Then, as you gingerly step beneath the streaming water, “knowing” you’re about to get soaking wet, the streams of rain miraculously stop and all you feel are little errant splashes. It’s truly bizarre. Moses may have felt like this when the Red Sea parted.

For all this, the show didn’t move me as much as The Weather Project in the Tate Modern turbine hall a few years back. Then, a giant sun beamed down from on high and had visitors basking under its rays. I guess it just points up the difference between sun and rain. A glowing sun has you drifting around and opening up to the people around you, whereas rain makes you recoil into yourself — even when you know you won’t get wet.


I’m just putting my feet up after my second decade of London Open House weekends. I haven’t missed one, and what amazing times I’ve had. From the tiniest of private homes to the grandest public building almost every place I’ve visited has been really memorable in some way — usually some quirky aspect of its occupant’s life.

This weekend I’ve seen a city office that features a herb garden for the chef to create amazing lunches at £4.50 a shot to try and prevent staff going outside during the day. I’ve explored the construction site at the British Museum and seen one of the handful of leading edge machines that can extract clay from deep holes through a tube and spew it out into a truck, rather than laboriously digging it out. And I’ve toured the massive new development at King’s Cross that mixes restored Victorian warehouses, futuristic office towers and a garden planted in a row of skips.

I’ve also been into four private homes, and nosied around the bedrooms and bathrooms, looking at everything from fabulous rainforest showers to a bed perched on top of a wardrobe to utilise the minute space. I can understand why architect owners of homes allow the public to come and visit, and many people go away clutching their business cards. But the people,who invite you in purely out of a desire to share the place where they love living are the real heroes of Open House. Big thanks are due to the two couples who welcomed the crowds into their Barbican mews house and into their maisonette in the Golden Lane estate.