London Nights: Museum of London

As an insomniac you make a decision, either you embrace the night or resent it, and I have embraced it. I appreciate everything from London’s night skyline, to nights out in different areas of the city, catching rare quiet moments where you are the only person on an ordinarily busy street, spotting a bold urban fox running across the road, and the general sense of calm after 11pm… so a photography exhibition dedicated to ‘London Nights’ easily caught my attention. In a wonderfully contrary way I visited this exhibition at an early morning private view, and had the pleasure of starting my day by viewing these 200 images captured by over 60 photographers. The exhibition is displayed in the museums’ basement gallery, and is dimly lit with grey walls and dark floors, adding to the nocturnal atmosphere. One of the things that struck me most was a feeling of familiarity, and appreciating how little the city has changed over the last century, as so many of the buildings and streets were immediately recognisable and only the fashion or adverts captured within each image gave away the decade they were taken. This was most evident in George Davidson Reid’s 1920’s photographs of Trafalgar Square, images of Liverpool Street station during the Blitz, Bob Collins’ 1960’s shots of Piccadilly Circus, numerous iconic images of St Pauls Cathedral from almost every decade, and contemporary photos of a night out in East London and West London displayed side by side. Broadly split into three categories; ‘London Illuminated’ which focusses on the capital’s landmarks from both familiar and unusual vantage points, ‘Dark Matters’ which explores the more sinister side of the city and how darkness can evoke fear, threat or isolation, and ‘Switch On Switch Off’ which observes Londoners who inhabit the city rather than the city itself. On until mid November the show is certainly worth a visit – incorporating architecture and portraiture, moments of resilience and shared acts of exhilaration, as well as exploring social issues and current threats to London’s night venues.

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Dennis Severs House: 18 Folgate Street

Dennis Severs House is a magical place, even more so at this time of year when their annual Christmas installation decorates all five floors of the Grade II listed Georgian terraced house. Situated on Folgate Street, behind Spitalfields Market (East London) the house was purchased by an American artist named Dennis Severs in 1979. At that time the building was in a dilapidated state and Severs began an extensive refurbishment programme, decorating each of the ten rooms in a different historic style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Not content with refurbishment alone, Severs also added the fictional story of the Jervis family, originally Huguenot silk weavers who inhabited the house from 1725 to 1919. Visitors ring the bell to gain entry to the house and are asked to remain in silence for the duration of their visit, as a scintillating combination of sound, smell and sight arouse your curiosity and help guide you on your own journey. With no electrics, the house is lit entirely by candlelight and each room is absolutely bursting with furniture, trinkets, half eaten food, portraits, old masters paintings, clothes, jewellery, musical scores and more! Visitors begin their descent back in time in the basement cellar and kitchen, then upstairs to the ground floor eating parlour, up another flight of stairs to the withdrawing room and smoking room, upstairs again to the chamber and boudoir, before a final climb to the top floor which is rented out to lodgers and in a much more ramshackle state than the rest of the house – and end back on the ground floor in the back parlour. The house motto is ‘Aut Visum Aut Non!’ translated as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ – and if you fail to be transported back to the Victorian age through the bewitching experience presented here, then you are truly missing out.

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Absent: Shoreditch Town Hall

I am deeply suspicious of immersive theatrical experiences and have a palpable dislike of forced audience participation, so had my concerns about attending Dreamthinkspeak’s new production at Shoreditch Town Hall. Inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a London hotel for over a decade until her eviction in the 1980’s, ‘Absent’ uses the Town Hall’s labyrinthine basement as the set for a journey “guests” can enjoy at their own pace. Upon arrival, I immediately bought into the deception of it being a real hotel, complete with reception and check-in area, functioning bar, and doormen leading you down to the basement where the hotel façade continues. With no idea what to expect when entering the first bedroom, black and white films of a glamorous dinner and a two-way mirror allowing you to see into the next bedroom where a drunk and disorientated older woman is packing her suitcase, ease you into the story. Moving down the corridor, you can look into each of the hotel bedrooms via keyholes and peepholes to view the same woman at different life stages; an innocent child, elegant young lady, and lonely older woman. Influences range from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Orwell’s 1984 – and the integration of film, installation, eerie soundtrack and detailed miniatures of the rooms you are standing in, make navigating your way through the building intriguing and utterly absorbing. The maze-like basement constantly alters in scale, and oscillates between the real (actual rooms) and the imaginary (film, installation, replica miniatures) making you feel as though you are stepping into scenes you have been watching or moments from the past. As you exit the final room a doorman is required to inform you that the experience is over, testament to its authenticity and to how convincing an illusion has been created.

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