Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Comic Relief (Red Nose Day)

Nothing too ornate, fancy or complex today.  I just want your money.  For a good cause of course!

The play I am directing is called Teechers.

Teechers is a funny play.

One of the performance nights falls on Comic Relief.

Therefore it makes sense to raise money for Comic Relief through the play.

For those of you not familiar with Comic Relief, it is a major charity based in the UK which strives to create a just world, a world that is free from poverty.  Their mission is to drive positive change through the power of entertainment and they have been raising millions since 1985.

They have two big campaigns - Red Nose Day and Sport Relief and alternate every year.  This year it is Red Nose Day.

Red Nose Day is on Friday 15th March.  The idea is pretty simple.  People do funny, silly and ridiculous things, often mocking themselves and others, all in the name of entertainment that raises money for charity.  They do it at home, at school, in the workplace and in our case, the theatre.  It all culminates in a night of televised entertainment and comedy where hundreds of people and celebrities take part to raise money.
My wonderful group, The Canterbury Players, has already pledged £100 towards Comic Relief.  We are raising money on each of the performance nights with ticket sales and charity collection tins as well.
We have even joined Sarah Millicans' #twittermillions campaign.  I don't think I have ever been as excited on twitter as I was a couple of days ago when I realised that Sarah Millican had favourited, re-tweeted and FOLLOWED me.  Serious palpitations - I adore her. 

It is not enough though.

I have set up a fundraising page - you can go here and donate.  Go on - you know you want to!  Every little really does help - just £2 could pay for 2 children to be tested for malaria in Uganda.  The quicker the diagnosis, the better the chance of saving their lives.

That's £1 a life.

It's not much to ask - you will find more than that down the back of the sofa if you have a rummage.

Also  - look at this lot.  Look at their little faces.  How can you resist.  They are wearing red noses to get you to donate.  You know you want to.
Finally if that isn't enough to convince you, here is a puppy with the Red Nose Day pup.  How can you possibly say no to that?

Monday, 25 February 2013

Saying Yes

About 6 months ago my arm got twisted quite severely by the lovely Chairwoman of my amateur dramatics group, The Canterbury Players, who talked me into directing for the first time.

I was very, very reluctant.  I wasn't sure I would have the time, I wasn't sure what play to do and frankly I was terrified.  I've never directed before and I did not have the first blue clue where to start.

I said Yes.
I've been saying Yes a lot more recently, and it has opened up so many new experiences for me.  I said Yes to joining the Players in the first place - walking into that room two and a half years ago to join in a workshop on my own was one of the hardest - and best - things I have done since I got married.  To date I have acted in 4 plays and stage managed 2 as well as directing this current one, all with next to no previous experience.

I have also got an amazing group of friends from the Players, one of whom I am bridesmaid to in six months time.  For me the Players has been socially life changing.

I said Yes to blogging.  I said Yes to gaming.  I even said Yes to Karaoke - although to be fair most other people in the pub wish I had said No to that one.

Saying Yes to directing has been a revelation.  It has been hard work, really hard work and a lot of extra hours on top of my day job (we rehearse three nights a week from 7.30-10pm and that does not include the time spent outside of rehearsal on prep work for the play) but I have been so blessed in the team that I have around me.  I have a marvelous assistant director who knows far more than I do, has held my hand throughout it and has caught my eye every time I needed reassuring.  I've got a wonderful support team looking after my marketing and reminding me about niggly details I need to take care of and offers of support left right and center from other, more experienced members of the group for which I am so grateful.  

I've got an incredible cast who have risen to the challenge of a demanding play - one that involves them being extremely physical on stage, remembering a lot of movement, quick fire lines and the small issue of jumping between characters on stage, sometimes within the same sentence.
I have loved every single second of it so far.

We are now in the final rehearsal stages - curtain goes up on the opening night in exactly 16 days time and one of the performances is dedicated to Comic Relief (hence the noses in the picture above).  Most of the publicity has now been done, all that remains is to finalise the sound and lighting designs, get into the theatre, tighten up some of scenes and sell the tickets!  I will do a separate blog post of the play itself though - I feel that I owe 'Teechers' that much!

Saying Yes to something new teaches you so much about yourself.  It's a mantra I hope I keep for the rest of my life - at least a couple of new experiences every year.

What have you said Yes to recently?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Parrot

Canterbury = Old

You cannot move in the city before being hit over the head quite forcefully with a bit of history - a church here, a cobbled street there, medieval architecture cluttering up the place and the entire city framed by the ancient wall.

However there is one place that is older than many of the rest of the city's buildings.  Just a smidegeon older.

Tucked away off the main routes down picturesque Northgate is a wonderful little place called The Parrot.
You step into the pub, passing between two evergreens bejeweled in fairy lights and down below street level, onto the deep rust red tapestry rugs that are strewn over the dark oak floor and you feel like you have stepped back in time.  All that's missing are the willow rushes and the pigs rooting in the corners.  Floors slope like drunken sailors, door frames are low and crooked, wood is dark with age and use, tapestry's and wrought iron hang from exposed brickwork while the 15C chimneys can still be seen in the secluded courtyard garden.  Everything creaks.  This is character that no interior designer could ever hope to match.  This is character that is earned from nearly 650 years (off and on) of serving customers ale.  The Parrot have embraced their medieval mantra whole-heartedly - just check out their website
The Parrot is rightly famed for its cask ale selection and I am particularly partial to the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that they serve.  In very large glasses.  Don't judge me.
 The food is also fantastic; in the summertime there is nothing quite like relaxing on the oversized furniture in their courtyard garden, debating whether to go for the Kobe Burger, Shredded Duck Platter or the Grill Stone Rump Steak and deciding if you have the energy to indulge in a game of chess.  The fire pit means you don't need to go inside if the weather turns a bit nippy.  In the winter the pub is warm and cozy with blazing fires and sizzling skillets of roasted vegetables and halloumi or prawns, Kentish pork belly or sea bass to warm you up.  I  think you can always judge the skill of a resturant by their chips.  Just check these out - so good!
I wasn't just at the Parrot for the pleasure of the building, wine and food last night.  Last night I was out for Cafe Theatre.  I've alluded to the fact a couple of times that Steve is rehearsing at the moment for a production by the AshCan Company and last night was the final showing.  Cafe Theatre is a lot more intimate than regular theatre, with audience numbers normally less than 50 per night; sometimes less than 25.  Autobahn by Neil LaBute is a triple header and Steve plus another friend were playing boyfriend and girlfriend going through a break up at a popular break up / make out spot somewhere in the States in the first of the trilogy (Benchseat).  All three plays were performed upstairs in the Tapestry Room of The Parrot and a group of us joined the intimate audience for the final evening performance.  This was like no theatre venue I had ever been in before - I immediately wanted to start preparations for a medieval mystery play which would work wonderfully in the space. 
 There is also something very strange about the juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern - like the state of the art sound and lighting desk being lit by candlelight.
I wasn't able to take any pictures of the actual production as it was too small a space and would have distracted the six actors.  The set was simplistic and worked wonderfully - anymore and it would have overpowered the Venue.  All three plays were powerful and well acted - thanks AshCan, thoroughly enjoyed my night out!
We also managed to promote my production of Teechers that I am currently directing - more on that in a later post.
The pub was refurbished in the mid-2000's and was renamed The Parrot as according to locals at some point in its illustrious past it had been called this previously.  No evidence to back this claim up has been found, but it did give the pub a decent excuse for a while to have a pet parrot in a large ornate cage residing on the far end of the bar.

Sadly the parrot is no longer present. Legend has it that he was too foul mouthed for the customers and would regularly abuse them as they waited for their drinks at the bar.

The Parrot is a beautiful pub - well worth a visit for lunch or dinner at any time of year if you are in Canterbury.  If you are planning to eat dinner here I would strongly advise booking in advance - this place has a well-deserved reputation and it fills up quickly! 
If you do manage to visit, please do let me know what you think of The Parrot.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Sunday Night Games

Sunday night was a relaxed one.  Steve came home from his final rehearsal before going on stage tonight with a couple of friends who are also involved with the play.  We ordered Chinese from our favourite restaurant in Canterbury (Kudos - they are amazing), cracked open some beers and sparkling wine, watched Marvel comic movies (Green Lantern and Avengers Assemble) and played trivial pursuit.  My general knowledge is awful so my wheel remained pretty empty.  I did however use my time at University watching films to good advantage to get one question correct about the film Velvet Goldmine; sadly my answer of Mr VroomVroom in reference to F1 was not accepted.  I thought it was a perfectly valid answer personally!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Smoked Sea Salt Whiskey Caramel Cheesecake Bars

Pinterest is great for so many reasons but one of my favourite is recipe inspiration.  This was one of the recipes I found there that I really wanted to try out.  Steve loves his whiskey so this version of a cheesecake was great to experiment with.  He had dress rehearsal today for the latest play that he is in so I made a batch of these last night for him to take with him...I haven't had the feedback yet so here's hoping they went down well!

The original recipe can be found here - I have converted it into UK measurements and adapted it slightly as some of the methods used in the original recipe were just not working for me.

Shopping list

Bag of pecans
Block of unsalted butter
Bag of plain flour
Bag of granulated sugar
Maldon sea salt flakes
3 large packets cream cheese
Box of 6 large eggs
Pure vanilla extract
Double Cream
Smoked Sea Salt

For the base

2/3 cup pecans, toasted
85g cold unsalted butter cut into small chunks
3/4 cup plain flour
1/3 cup sugar (ordinary granulated is fine)
1 teaspoon salt (I used Maldon sea salt flakes - don't use table salt)

For the cheesecake

900g cream cheese (I know this looks like a huge amount.  I had to go back to the supermarket as I stupidly did my conversions after I did my shopping)
1 cup sugar (granulated)
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 large egg yolk at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (I used Madagascan vanilla extract)
Pinch of salt (Maldon again for me)

For the caramel

1 cup sugar (granulated)
2 tablespoons water (ish)
400 ml whiskey or bourbon (the smokier the better, I used Elijah Craig as I had a test tube of it lying around the house that Mr M wasn't going to drink but Irish or Scotch will do just as well as long as it is smokey).
28g unsalted butter
1/4 cup double cream

Smoked sea salt (for serving - I used Oak-Smoked Sea Salt that I found in Morrisons with the other salts, herbs and spices)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (I have no idea what gas mark this is I'm afraid!).  Line a deep baking dish with baking parchment or tin foil with an overhang on all sides so you can easily lift out your cheesecake later.

Toast the pecans in a small frying pan until fragrant and then put the pecans, butter, flour, sugar and salt for the base in a food processor and blast until the mixture is well combined and it resembles coarse meal (took me about 20 seconds).  Press the mixture evenly (paying close attention to the corners) into the prepared dish and bake until golden brown on all edges (between 25 and 35 minutes - keep an eye on it)

Combine the cream cheese and sugar in a food processer and mix until smooth.  Add the eggs and the egg yolk one at a time, vanilla extract and salt and blend.

Pour the mixture over the base and bake until a skewer / cake tester / nail file / weapon of choice inserted into the centre comes out smooth - it will rise up in the centre and look like custard but this does subside so don't be alarmed!  It takes about 40 minutes to bake.

When cooked, turn the oven off  with the cheesecake left inside and leave the door jar for 15 minutes (if you have an oven like mine that is determined to close, a rolled up tea towel wedged into the corner does the trick). 

Remove the cheesecake from the oven to a wire rack (still in the baking dish).  Coat a butter knife with oil and run it carefully around the perimeter of the cake.  Leave to cool for at least an hour.

When the cheesecake has cooled carefully lift it from its baking dish using your convenient lining handles and place on a flat surface like a chopping board.  You can then peel the lining away from the edges and carefully slide it out from underneath. The middle of mine by now had subsided slightly, creating a ridge all around the edges.  This is ideal as it forms a well for the caramel to be poured into which can be trimmed away later.

Put the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and stir so that the sugar is completely moistened.  Brush the insides of the saucepan with a wet pastry brush to remove any sugar granules then place the pan over a medium heat and bring to the boil.

Most recipes at this point tell you to swirl and not stir the caramel.  I really struggle with swirling so I always stir with a wooden spoon and have never had any problems.  The caramel will seize and the sugar will clump and go really grainy before it starts to melt into a dark amber thick swirling liquid.  Be careful - you do not want to get this on your skin!

When all the sugar has completely melted and you have no grains left, pour in the whiskey.  The mixture will immediately seize and bubble - don't worry.  Just keep stirring until it turns back into a caramel and the alcohol fumes no longer threaten to knock you off your feet.
When you can breathe clearly again add the butter and cream and keep stirring until the thick clump of caramel in the middle is completely combined - this can take a good few minutes so be patient.

When it has all completely combined, turn off the heat and keep stirring to cool it down a bit.  After about 5 minutes carefully pour it over the cheesecake.  You need to act fairly quickly as it hardens quite rapidly.  Scatter the smoked sea salt over the top and bung it in the fridge for at least a couple of hours to set.  Overnight is best.

When set, dip a large serrated knife in boiling water, wipe down the knife quickly to remove the water and trim off the edges to create neat lines - the addition of heat to the knife means you get cleanly through all the layers.  You will need to heat and wipe down the knife for every side.  Then cut into blocks using the same heated knife technique.  Make sure the cheesecake comes to room temperature before serving with some more sprinkles of sea salt on the top.

I did like it this way but I find the concept of baking cream cheese very alien - this is a New York cheesecake method.  Next time I make this I think I will try it the UK way with no baking involved!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Versailles Gold

I've been eyeing up Essie's Penny Talk nail varnish for a while.  I'm a bit late to the rose gold bandwagon but it is an extremely pretty shade that works well with my skin tone and in a varnish it is work appropriate (unlike my neon green).  I just can't justify spending £10 on a nail varnish though so I have been looking for a good dupe for it for a couple of months now.

I popped into Boots yesterday to pick some bits and pieces up for Steve as well as a couple of bits that I *needed* myself.  I may have used my Boots points to get the Real Techniques Core Collection (something else that I have been eyeing up for a while, even more so since I got the stippling brush which is seriously good) and the Eco Tools Smudge Eyeliner brush as well as a crystal nail file.  I am so sick and tired of continuously purchasing standard ones I figured this would save money in the long term.  At the till they gave me a voucher for £2 off Max Factor foundation and as my day to day staple is the Max Factor Facefinity compact I stocked up.
While perusing the shelves I spotted the L'Oreal Colour Riche nail vanishes.  Normally £4.99 each, these were on offer for 2 for £7 and they had the Versailles Gold (106) in stock.  This is the closest dupe for Essie Penny Talk I have ever seen.
I am wearing two coats, with no base or top coat and no nail preparation before hand (I was very impatient and just wanted to see what it looked like).  It went on incredibly easily, even for someone as cack handed with nail varnish as I am and dried to a beautiful finish very quickly.  The pictures don't really do it justice; it is a very pale metallic gold with a subtle rose shimmer through it - very wearable.  I absolutely love it.  I also picked up another L'Oreal shade in Babydoll (207) but have yet to try it.  So far it has been on for 24 hours and it hasn't cracked or chipped or bubbled or peeled.  Which for me is impressive as my nail varnish never lasts particularly long.

I also picked up some dry shampoo.  I wasn't going to mention this but used it last night before I went to rehearsal as my hair was a mess, came downstairs and Steve commented on how nice my hair was looking.  Not bad for a dry shampoo!  The one I picked up was Lee Stafford Dark for oily roots.  It smells quite nice and is easy to use (spray and rub with your fingers) and had the bonus effect of providing lift, texture and volume.  It did leave a little bit of grey residue which I had to work out but it did the job. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Spring Dreams

It was piddling it down with rain this morning. Again. After more snow last night. This time of year always gets me a little down as I am right royally fed up of jumpers, layers and grey skies, cold noses, colder houses, getting up when it's dark, leaving work when it's dark and I am desperate for spring to arrive. To cheer myself up and add a bit of colour into my day I was going through some photos I took last spring time. I really hope spring hurries up. Until it gets here these photos will have to do.