3 June 2019

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Northern Stage

There's nothing like theatre to put your own life into perspective sometimes. Especially when the subject matter involves civil war, child marriage and the horrors of the Taliban. You start to realise that your own problems are pretty trivial compared to the terrible suffering of women and girls in Afghanistan. It's easy to read a book like A Thousand Splendid Suns or Malala and feel enraged, then go back to your normal life. What can we possibly do about it? All of these thoughts started running through my head whilst watching this incredibly moving and mesmerising play adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma.

A Thousand Splendid Suns play
The set really transports you to Afghanistan - photo by Pamela Raith
2007's A Thousand Splendid Suns was an international bestseller for author Khaled Hosseini, whose first novel The Kite Runner sold seven million copies in the USA. Heavily influenced by his trips back to Afghanistan after living in America for nearly thirty years, the book tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two women, Mariam and Laila (fantastic performances by Amina Zia and Sujaya Dasgupta respectively). We meet Laila and her parents in the first scene, who are preparing to leave their home when a devastating airstrike leaves Laila orphaned. She is pulled from the rubble by Rasheed (a scarily convincing Pal Aron), an older neighbour who at first appears helpful but sees the change to take a second wife. His first wife, Mariam is understandably upset by this plan, however the deep relationship they build as a result of the situation is moving and becomes a light in the midst of unending darkness. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns Northern Stage
Rasheed's cruelty to his wives becomes increasingly worse - photo by Pamela Raith
The domestic abuse suffered by the two women is harrowingly depicted, with one scene showing Mariam being flogged (she cleverly leaves her body soon after the beating starts) and Laila having to give her body away to stop Rasheed from being violent. When Laila gets pregnant and has to have a Caesearean without anaesthetic, you start to realise the scale of the horrors of the war. Her daughter, Aziza (the charming Shala Nyx) is treated like a second class citizen from birth, Rasheed's disappointment obvious and expected. Mariam becomes like a grandmother to her, and their son Zalmai.

Laila's traumatic birth - photo by Pamela Raith
The tension reaches an all time high when Laila's childhood sweetheart Tariq (who she thinks has been killed) comes back to reunite with her. Rasheed finds out, and all hell breaks loose. The women also try and leave the area, which doesn't end well. He sees the women as his possessions and will do whatever it takes to keep them down. The dialogue around education  (or lack of it), the punishments for going out alone (lashings and beatings) and the use of full burqas in the play reminds you of the extent of the Taliban's misogynist rule. 

Laila  (Sujaya Dasgupta) and Mariam (Amina Zia)
Despite all of the horrors, the heart of the story is about family, sisterhood, overcoming hardships and the strength of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horrors. I was totally moved and captivated from the first second, hoping for a way out for Laila and Mariam and a better future for their children. It's not exactly a happy ending, but how could it be based on the terrible reality of life for women in Afghanistan? But there is hope for a better future. As I left I donated some money towards domestic violence victims in Afghanistan, and got a wake up call about the freedoms we enjoy here and not to take them for granted. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns is at Northern Stage until 15th June. Book tickets here 

*I received two tickets in exchange for a review.

8 May 2019

Chef's Academy and Lifestyle Academy - Newcastle College

I've been going to the Lifestyle Academy at Newcastle College for a few years now for holistic treatments (their amazing prices suited my erratic self-employed budget). I've been to a few events at the Chef's Academy too, but not nearly enough. 

If you've never had the pleasure of going, you can experience ridiculously affordable, top-notch menus and foodie events (the menus change every two weeks) at the Chef's Academy. Student chefs learn their trade here, supervised by experienced chefs in a professional environment. Past events have seen collaborations with top chefs from across the region. All of the ingredients they use are locally sourced, teaching the students about regional produce. 

The Lifestyle Academy trains future spa, beauty and holistic therapists/hair stylists and offers spa treatments and hair services at heavily discounted prices at The Retreat. Treatments include massages, facials and other holistic therapies (click here for the 2018/19 price list). Professional products used in the spa include Elemis, Dermalogica, Spa Find and Environ - you can buy them from the reception.

I went for lunch before having a treatment (probably the right way around, otherwise I would have dropped off at the table). I was instantly impressed by the range of the menu, offering meat, seafood and vegetarian options for each course. After being to the Northumberland Coast a couple of weeks ago I was still in the mood for seafood so I went for the Craster crab and the filet of coley.

Lifestyle Academy Newcastle College
The lunch menu at the Chef's Academy 
I was struck by how attentive the waiting staff were, and the view. The crab starter involved toasted sourdough bread, topped with brown crab meat beneath a white crab meat salad (mixed with creme fraiche, lemon juice, chives, cayenne pepper and mayo) and watercress. It was delicious; I don't usually eat the brown meat but served this way it was amazing. 

Chefs Academy Newcastle College
The delicious Craster Crab starter
The fish main course was full of flavour - a perfectly cooked filet of coley on a bed of bright yellow, saffron-coloured orzo pasta with mussels and chorizo atop neon green wild garlic oil. The orzo was cooked in mussel stock and is now top of my list of new ingredients to try out at home (it's like a cross between pasta and paella rice). By this point I was starting to get quite full, so I'm not quite sure why I opted for a filling cheeseboard (I think it had just been since I'd had a cheeseboard).

Lunch Newcastle College
The filey of coley on orzo was divine 
The cheeseboard featured four different cheeses (a brie, a blue, a cheddar and a hard cheese) served with walnuts, chutney, celery, grapes and a variety of crackers. The cheese was delicious (especially the brie) and paired with a bold Shiraz (thanks for the recommendation) it was the perfect way to end the meal (even though I couldn't finish it all). 

A top-notch cheese board 
After speaking to the Head Chef about the food and the training I was a bit late for my facial appointment, and was ready for a lie down to be honest! Cameron came and introduced herself and took me into one of the lovely treatment rooms (there's fourteen of them) and explained my treatment - A Dermalogica prescription facial (just £14.50). I got myself comfy on the massage bed and she got to work - cleansing my skin with Pre-Cleanse and Ultracalming Cleanser, then toning with Ultracalming Mist before exfoliating and giving me one of the best facial massages I've ever had (the massage cream made my skin feel really soft). This was followed by a Colloidal masque which is great for dehydrated skin before moisturising with Active Moist, one of my favourite moisturisers. My skin was drying out in certain areas beforehand and ended up feeling so hydrated and soft. I ended up buying a Dermalogica travel kit to sort out my dryness. I think so highly of this facial so much I'm going to have it every month. 

To get a top quality three course lunch and an hour-long spa treatment for the combined price of £25 is pretty amazing and a big reason why the restaurant and the spa are so busy. You can also combine the two for a daytime Catch Up With Friends (manicure, Dermalogica facial and two course lunch) and an Evening Pamper Package (back massage, facial and two course evening meal), both for just £25. 

Remember to check out the spa timetable for opening hours and treatment availability - call 0191 2004600 or email Kerianne.Leask@ncl-coll.ac.uk for appointments. 

Call - 0191 2004644 to book into the restaurant. It's closed on Mondays, Lunch is available Tuesday to  Friday and Dinner Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

*I received a three course lunch and a facial in exchange for a review

24 April 2019

Northern Ballet Mixed Programme - Northern Stage

I'm used to seeing Northern Ballet's stunning large scale productions (The Nutcracker, The Little Mermaid) -  this was my first time seeing a Mixed Programme at Northern Stage. Three pieces, three different (and new) choreographers, with the focus more on the dancers than a traditional story and huge sets. 
Northern Ballet Mixed Programme 2019

The Kingdom of Back

Choreographed by Morgann Runacre-Temple, this piece was inspired by the story of Nannerl Mozart, (played by Antionette Brooks-Daw) the talented older sister of Wolfgang (it was the first time I'd heard of her). Her brother wasn't the only gifted one. Apparently she was the best keyboard player in Europe aged just twelve, but Wolfgang overtook her and her performing career came to an end. Their father, Leopold is portrayed as a bit of a tyrant, demanding more and more of his children musically. Morgann was also inspired by letters written by the Mozart family. The performance really showed Nannerl's strength in the face of her obsessive father and there were really interesting moments between the three main characters.  Antoinette Brooks-Daw was mesmerising and her strength was evident throughout. The piece really came alive during the ensemble dancing, and I had to stop myself from closing my eyes and drifting off to Mozart and Bach (performed by the Swingle Sisters). I also loved the ending, where the dancers freestyled to harpsichord music. 

Northern Ballet
Antionette Brookes-Daw with Northern Ballet dancers


Choreographed by Mlindi Kulashe, one of the rising stars of the Company (this is his choreographical debut). Born and raised in Cape Town, Mamela means 'listen' in Xhosa, his native language. There was a sense of feeling trapped and imprisoned from the start, the music incorporating people's voices signifying the influences of society on each of us. There was an incredible duet which blew my mind in terms of the technicality and I was really impressed with the lighting and the costumes. 

Fillippo Di Vilio, Matthew Koon and Riku Itu - photo Emma Kauldhar

The Shape Of Sound

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons was some of the first classical music I ever heard, and is used to great effect in the final piece, choreographed by Kenneth Tindall (Northern Ballet's Artistic Director of Digital and Choreographer in Residence). Vivaldi's concerti grossi is recomposed by Max Richter.  The movement of the full cast of fourteen dancers is inspired by the seasons themselves, and the human response to those seasons. I was mesmerised throughout the whole piece, not just with the dancing but with the lighting design too (Tindall has a long-term collaboration with Alastair West). There were a couple of falls but they only reminded me of the risks that the dancers take and how far they are pushing themselves, and it made me admire them all the more. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the show. 

Matthew Koon and Riku Ito + dancers - photo by Emma Kauldhar

Minju Kang and Joseph Taylor  - photo by Emma Kauldhar

To find out more about Northern Ballet's current programme click here

*I received two tickets in exchange for a review 

4 April 2019

Beatlemania - The Sage Gateshead

Something weird happened last year. I kind of got obsessed with The Beatles. It came out of nowhere and took me down a rabbit hole of watching lots of old footage on Youtube, buying memorabilia (we all need a Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine, right?) and going on the Magical Mystery Tour in Liverpool. I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to. When I heard that the Royal Northern Sinfonia were celebrating their hits with Beatlemania at The Sage Gateshead, the fan girl in me couldn't resist. 

The Beatles

Conducted by West End Musical Director Alfonso Casado Trigo, the orchestra appeared on stage in high spirits, some of them wearing flares, wigs and novelty glasses. After a mesmerising overture featuring She Loves You, Help, The Long and Winding Road, Ob-La-Di,Ob-La-Da and Eleanor Rigby, the RNS were joined by vocalists Jenna Lee-Jones, Rebecca Lock, Jon Boydon and George Maguire who took it in turns to sing the songs solo, as a duet and as a four piece. The first half kicked off with Magical Mystery Tour as an ensemble before classics such as Back in the USSR, The Fool on the Hill were covered individually by Jenna and Rebecca respectively (both of their voices gave me goosebumps). I also enjoyed Ticket to Ride (a duet with Rebecca and George) and A Hard Day's Night, sung by Jon. 

After the interval we were treated to hits from the psychedelic phase - Strawberry Fields Forever (my favourite), Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and I Am The Walrus  mixed in with earlier classics such as She Loves You and Can't Buy Me Love. The singers had some great costume changes - the sparklier the better and during Yesterday (sung by Jon and George, ironically) I just sat back and realised the brilliance of the songwriting and the timeless quality of the music, and wondered if the musicians appreciated this music as much as say, Mozart. 

The finale featured Hello, Goodbye, All My Loving, Something, Hey Jude, Drive My Car and Maxwell's Silver Hammer before launching into a rousing rendition of  All You Need Is Love (audience members had voted for their favourite Beatles song prior to the concert). In the middle of political chaos and stressful times, we need music more than ever to soothe and calm our nerves. Beatlemania definitely provided a big dollop of positivity and hearing these classic songs played by an orchestra of the quality of the Royal Northern Sinfonia was an unforgettable treat. 

To find out more about upcoming RNS concerts please click here 

*I received two tickets in exchange for a review