Our Olympic Experience No 1 – Men’s Football, Japan v Honduras and Senegal v UAE, Coventry Stadium, 1st August 2012

Olympic FootballAs I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, deep down Mrs Chrisparkle and I are very sporty types, so I put our application in for the ballot for Olympic tickets on Day One, what seems like many years ago now. Like nearly everyone else, we were completely unsuccessful in all of our choices. But that meant we were entitled to go for the Sad Losers’ Repecharge, and subsequently obtained tickets to three sports, totally unrelated to the six of our original application. Still, once we got them, we held on to them, and on Wednesday we sampled our first taste of Live Olympic Glory.

JapanCoventry was the perhaps slightly unlikely location for this momentous event, as some of the football events are being held at the Ricoh Arena – I mean the City of Coventry Stadium (close shave with the Branding Police there!) We arrived at the station courtesy of our London Midland train on perfect time, and were greeted by about a dozen joyful volunteers whose sole job seemed to be to say hi and welcome and point to where the complimentary Shuttle Buses were waiting. Within 60 seconds of getting off the train we were sitting on the bus – you can’t say fairer than that. And very soon we were off on the first leg of Glory.

HondurasAt the stadium, we were asked to take everything out of our pockets and put them into a clear plastic bag that they kindly provided; any small bags could be taken straight through, but any larger ones had to be security checked. “This counts as small, yes?” said Mrs C to the friendly lady, pointing at her handbag. “No. That needs to go through security.” But the procedure was about as speedy and pleasant as it could be. We were rapidly whisked to a nice lady who asked permission to open Mrs C’s bag, agreed that everything inside was perfectly valid and non-terrorist, and then put her bag into another large clear bag, tie-twisted it up with an enormous security tag that could have restrained an oak tree, and we were cleared to enter. A friendly lady asked if I wanted to buy a programme. Yes please. But there are £5 and £10 programmes, and the lady went into careful detail to explain the difference between the two. I opted for the fiver.

SenegalMore friendly people waved us towards the turnstile entrances, with “hello” and “welcome” and “have a nice day” and it all sounded really genuine and welcoming. It’s a pity Life can’t be more like the Olympics, really. Mrs C and I were separated at the turnstile into “men” and “women” queues so that we could be same-sex-frisked (“Don’t mind if I pat you down, sir?” politely enquired the presumably G4S security guy) and then it was a quick scan of a barcode and we were inside. They say in advance to expect airport-style security. They are wrong; it is hugely more friendly and polite than any airport experience I’ve ever had.

UAEOnce inside there is a vast array of food and drink outlets – more than enough to deal with this crowd you would have thought…. (see later). We established which would be the best one to offer a gluten-free meal for between the matches. Nearly every one was offering steak pie, pasty, cheese and bacon slice, etc and we thought uh-oh this doesn’t look promising. I distinctly remembering reading on some London 2012 site that they had put a lot of thought into providing for the sustenance needs of people with food allergies. We kept looking. Eventually we found two outlets that were offering Chicken or Vegetable Jalfrezi, with rice and naan. We had already thought that a glass of pre-match wine would be a good idea so ordered two London 2012 Chenin Blancs and asked whether the Jalfrezi was gluten-free. After some backstage consultation the lady came back and said yes! We said great! We’ll be back later. The Chenin Blanc was just about cold enough but very tasty and we stood in front of a screen and watched Bradley Wiggins coasting home to victory, to a huge cheer from the others also watching.

Japan and Honduras National AnthemsI’m pleased to say there is plenty of toilet provision, which is always a Good Thing. For the gents, a veritable plethora of urinals; I reckon at least 300 people could use them at the same time, and that was just on our side of the stadium. Ladies were also well catered for, I understand. However, Mrs C’s enjoyment of the toilet provision was marred by the overzealous actions of the Branding Police. I had noticed in the Gents that the name of the company supplying the hot air dryers had been masking-taped-over. Didn’t give it a huge amount of thought to be honest. Mrs C, however, complained that not only did they do that in the Ladies with the hot air dryers, but also with the soap dispenser, the Sanitary Towel bin and most ridiculously of all, with the names on the vending machine. So you couldn’t tell if you were buying an urgently needed tampon or a tangerine-flavoured condom. She came out speechless with annoyance about it, finding it an insult to her intelligence. So much so, gentle reader, and don’t tell anyone, but, aggrieved by the wrong done to the sisterhood, she returned back inside and removed the masking tape from the vending machine. As she pointed out, if you had bought the tangerine-flavoured condom by mistake you would be more than narked. A little civil disobedience from time to time is just something that has to be done.

Our excellent seatsThe first of the two matches we would be seeing was Japan v Honduras. Not a lot of Honduran shirts or flags in evidence, but, my, what a lot of Japanese! Every other person had a red dot on a white oblong painted on their face, loads of people wrapped themselves in large Japanese flags, ladies were in sporty kimonos, guys were dressed in full Samurai warrior outfits. The atmosphere was tangibly exciting. They were really throwing themselves into the spirit of the event in a way that I hadn’t expected.

Japan v HondurasWe took our seats; and they were great. East stand, more or less in line with the front end of the penalty box, about fifteen rows back. Everyone of course is currently concerned with Empty Seat Syndrome, but I didn’t think the ground was looking that bad. People kept coming in and going out so it was difficult to gauge the attendance but it looked to us about 75% full. The teams came on; we had the National Anthems. Everyone stood in respectful silence for both anthems (apart from the Japanese who sang along, which was only right and proper).

Flags of all footballing nationsAnd from then on, it got a bit boring. The match wasn’t very exciting – both Japan and Honduras were already through to the next round so there wasn’t a great deal to play for apart from a bit of honour on the day. I’m certainly not saying they did a “Badminton”, they just weren’t very good at finishing. Or starting, come to that. At half time we were thrown big bouncy balls to play with. That was good. Second half came, still not a lot of action, but we hang on till the final whistle to mark the end of the thrilling no score draw.

Senegal v UAEThere was a good hour between the end of the match and the beginning of the Senegal v UAE match so we thought there would be plenty of time to queue for a Jalfrezi. Actually Mrs C had suggested we leave five minutes early to queue, but we decided that ought not to be necessary. Wrong! When we eventually got to the outlet in question, there was a very long queue. Should we join it, or come back when it has gone down? We joined. After half an hour we were close to the counter, but then – disaster struck. They ran out of pies. Everyone else was desperate for pies, it seems, and they were waiting for fresh supplies to go in the oven. But instead of trying to find out if anyone wanted anything else to eat, they just stopped serving. And waited. They would serve people who just wanted drinks, but that was all. Eventually extra pies arrived, but not before some people had got unsurprisingly very arsey and tetchy about it. In fact I was surprised at the amount of good grace and forbearance most of the customers showed. After 45 minutes of queueing we were finally able to order. Two Vegetable Jalfrezis and two glasses of your Finest London 2012 Tempranillo Shiraz, if you please. I paid for it all (£22.40 – judge for yourself if that’s good value or not). First one Jalfrezi arrived. The server scampered away. Then two little bottles of wine were plonked on the counter – no glasses. The server scampered away again. A guy waiting for a pie admired the fact that they served wine by the neck – we agreed it was a classy joint and no mistake. Eventually another Jalfrezi appeared, which we grabbed quickly. “Have you got any glasses for the wine please?” No – but we could have the polystyrene cups they use for coffee. So we found a quiet corner – not – and ate our Jalfrezis (very nice actually) and drank our wine (surprisingly delish). The naam bread turned out to be pitta but because of the stupid time it took to queue and get served we missed the first 15 minutes of the next match and so I certainly wasn’t in the mood to question their Trades Descriptions.

Fewer attendees second match Our late return was a shame because it was much more exciting than the first match. Senegal and UAE were really at it hammer and tongs, especially in the second half, with lots of near misses and agonised oohs and aahs from the largely non-partisan crowd, Senegalese drum beats notwithstanding. There were a couple of goals though, both at our end of the pitch, so it was very rewarding to watch. The 1-1 draw was fair I thought. The majority of the Japanese supporters had gone home after the first match so the stands looked much emptier but it didn’t spoil the atmosphere. The official attendance was 28,652 – apparently Coventry City’s average home crowd for 2011-2012 was 15,118. So that’s all good then.

Senegal attackWould the trip home be as seamless as the way in? Absolutely. Vast swathes of farewelling volunteers pointed us towards the shuttle buses and there really were a helluva lot of those too. They must have rounded up every stray bus in Warwickshire. Considering we left the stadium at around 9.40pm we were back at Coventry station at 10.20pm – that’s pretty good service. On arrival at the station we were still being welcomed, goodbyed and missing-you-alreadyed by volunteers and got on an extra train that those nice people at London Midland had provided that arrived at 10.23pm.

UAE defendA really enjoyable day. Highlights: atmosphere, organisation, friendliness, goals. Lowlights: food queues and overzealous Branding Police. You may read that the Olympic powers that be don’t want you to take bags into football arenas. Our advice would be, bring your own choice of food from home and enjoy it picnic-style – although no drinks of course, you’ll need to get those from the well-stocked bars. There is a big Marks & Spencer just outside the stadium, which was calling Mrs C’s name as we arrived, so you could also stock up on eatables there. Do that and you’ll have a much more relaxing – and probably tastier – time. Anyway, what’s with this “no alcohol inside the ground” rule? Why is it safe to drink it in the outside areas, where people are milling around and bumping into one another, and not safe to drink it when you are sitting down? The bizarreness of this rule became very obvious at half time in the second match when we all got up to go out and encountered a poor man trying to get in with two hot coffees in either hand with which he was desperately trying not to scald himself as tons of us bombarded past him. If he had been carrying alcohol and it got spilt, it would have only resulted in tears not bandages.

Review – Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 21st July 2012

Kiss Me KateStill on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.

Hannah WaddinghamThe set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.

Alex Bourne Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.

Holly Dale Spencer But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.

Adam Garcia Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.

Kevin Brewis For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.

Jason Pennycooke As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.

David Burt and Clive Rowe David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.

Mark Heenehan The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.

Chichester CathedralP.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. It's gluten-free!A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!

The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.

But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.

Jimi HendrixIf I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.

“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“No.”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).

At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.

Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.

Covent Garden“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.

So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.