Day 14: Greenwich and The Big Life

Today was the last day [Mom McMains->] had to spend in England, so we asked her to chart our course for the daylight hours. She decided that Greenwich sounded like a lot of fun, so after another rather late start, we took the Underground to Westminster Pier, where we picked up a boat to Greenwich. As we traveled down the river, we got spectacular views of the Parliament Building, the Tower Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, and a number of other notable landmarks — it’s an excellent way to see the city.

The section of Greenwich where the boats arrive has been designated a World Heritage Site, owing both to its beauty and its historical importance in developing the science of navigation. Many remarkable buildings are included in this area, but the most exciting to me was the Royal Observatory. The Prime Meridian passes through the Observatory grounds, bringing with it a long queue of visitors who wish to stand astride it, one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the western. Since we found ourselves rushing to get back to the boat, we weren’t able to thoroughly explore the grounds, but did enjoy a really nice camera obscura exhibit, where one entered a darkened room and saw a wonderful panorama of London projected down on the white table in front of you. Since it’s effectively a giant pinhole camera, the image is impressively clear; it’s a marvel to watch the ships sailing by and trees waving in perfect miniature.

After traveling back to London, we split up — Kathy and I heading to the West End for a night of theater, and the kids heading back to the house with Mom, who had graciously offered to take care of them for the evening. Kathy and I had bought balcony tickets for The Big Life, which focused on the adventures of four citizens of various Caribbean islands who emigrate to England, and billed itself as “The Ska Musical.” (The plot was an updated version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost.) It had gotten good reviews, so we were already excited when we arrived at the theater, only to find that we had been bumped up to box seats that immediately overlooked the stage. We were a bit surprised to find ourselves pretty much the only white people in the queue at first, though the crowd became more mixed as the seats began to fill.

The show itself was lots of fun — fluffy, but with great energy, smart writing, and some fine music and acting. Our favorite part, however, was Rose — a big woman smartly dressed in a purple outfit and matching hat who started in the box seats opposite us and provided commentary and monologue during scene changes, functioning rather like a Greek Chorus with a sense of humor. (She was flamboyant enough, even when sitting still, that Kathy spotted her beforehand and said “I wonder if she’s a part of the show.”) Her ribald commentary kept things moving along nicely during the first act, but rose to a whole new level during the second, as she moved into the box where we were sitting and proceeded to, among other things, get Tabasco sauce in her eyes, run off screaming, sing a tune “from my latest album”, and lose her wig during her impassioned warbling. She seemed to be a crowd favorite too, as she got one of the biggest ovations when the curtain call came.

One thing that has amused me in the two weeks we’ve now been here is that I find myself speaking an odd half-baked mix of generic American English, Texan, UK English, and even a bit of Australian. (“No worries!” I hear myself cheerfully responding as people “Sorry!” their way past me in the Underground. Then I wince.) Especially when we were spending a good deal of time with the Cunliffes, it was very easy to slip into the native cadence — or at least an American mangling thereof. Hopefully I’ll be able to shake that off quickly when I get home, lest I suffer a well-deserved skewering by friends.