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Westfield & West End

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When the Westfield shopping centre opened at Shepherd's Bush, I marked an opening at the old Bush Theatre by paying a visit en route. So it was only fair I should do the same on my first visit to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, since Westfield Stratford City opened a few weeks ago. 

The place is absolutely enormous, and there are shops on three floors. Foyle's bookshop isn't open yet, but the McDonald's is the largest in Europe, apparently. The most astonishing thing of all, though, is the fact that the place is packed. And people are spending lots of money. In the poorest borough, Newham, in London. So what happened to the recession?

Admittedly it's half term week, and this Westfield has become a destination for people all over London and even beyond. In the food hall you can try Mexican, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, all sorts; and people are. I sat at a sushi bar and a couple of East End kids passed by sampling the ginger and hot green paste as if they were guests on a food programme, challenging their own palates. 

Even a champagne bar in the middle of the first level, alongside the doughnut and ice-cream bars, didn't seem too incongruous a port of call. And there's not a bottle of fizz on the menu for under £40! I met my friends Toni Palmer and Peter Straker for a pre-show tipple, and we were surrounded by young local couples for whom the place is obviously already a special outing venue.

For myself, I find the noise and the monsterism of it all overwhelming after half an hour or so. But the atmosphere, a mixture of holiday outing and a bustling market, is quite extraordinary.

And good preparation for the more specific humanity and personal contact of a theatre visit. Unfortunately, Rikki Beadle-Blair's Shalom Baby is a tedious misfire, but Stratford East is always a cheering, friendly theatre to visit.

I was slightly dismayed, though, to find the stage and auditorium of this Victorian gem re-configured as a traverse theatre, with half the audience seated on the stage and the other half on a raised section of the stalls. But the place will resume its usual, architecturally perfect dimensions in time for the pantomime season.

Incidentally, both Stratford East and the Hackney Empire are presenting Cinderella this Christmas, which is slightly bizarre as they are on each other's doorstep. On the other hand, I don't think the clash of Much Ado's in the West End and at the Globe this summer was too disastrous -- except for the comparisons going all in the Globe's favour.
The Comedy may have changed its name to the Harold Pinter, but the dismal bar service at the back of the stalls remains the same. One medium glass of red wine and a disgusting cup of Starbucks coffee served from a flask in a brown paper mug cost me £8.30, £2.80 of it for the "coffee."

Having poured the dire fluid, the bar girl had to leave her post -- this is twenty minutes before curtain up -- and go in search of the milk elsewhere in the building. I realise that milk and coffee must be anathema in any theatre bearing the Pinter signature, but all the same...this was as annoying as the more common feature of inefficient West End bar staff, which is that of deciding to open a few bottles just as the audience descend on them in the interval.

Will we ever get used to the Harold Pinter? It just doesn't sound like a theatre does it, in the way that the Gielgud already does. Pinter's widow, Antonia Fraser, has declared herself proud and privileged to be able to hail a cab and demand transportation to the Harold Pinter. I fear she may have to give a few more details of its whereabouts for some time yet.

"The what? The who? The where, love? 'Ere, I 'ad that Ray Cooney in the back of me cab once. Now 'e could write a funny play, 'e could. That 'Arold Pinter, was 'e funny? Never saw any of  'is plays meself....ah yes, Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, gotcha."


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