Beauty and the beast panto review, Oxford Playhouse

We’re huge fans of the Oxford Playhouse pantomime. For us it marks the start of Christmas and gets us in the mood for the mad weeks ahead. So we were a tad (OK, very) excited when we took our seats yesterday for the opening night of Beauty and the Beast. I found myself sitting next to a Slovenian lady who was enjoying her first pantomime. When she admitted her surprise at how many children were in the audience I immediately worried she wouldn’t enjoy this peculiarly British affair…..


Last year we thought the first half of Robin Hood didn’t quite live up to our incredibly high expectations. But this year the opening song ‘Happy’ immediately got the audience tapping their toes. It was a great song to kick off the show and set the scene for the rest of the performance.

I’m sure everyone knows the story of Beauty and the Beast so I won’t repeat it here. It did have the potential to be a little confusing, with dream characters and flashback scenes. However the cast and narrator did a good job of explaining the story, with lines like ‘so this is just a dream, it’s not real’.

The first half included an impressive circus set, with acrobatic skills on ropes and hoops. Tumbletoes, Beauty’s dog, rather strangely, became a pole dancing dog, who was able to slide down the pole head first and then come to an abrupt halt a few inches from the floor. However, the scene was stolen by the Dame and her son when they demonstrated their gymnastic ribbon skills (or lack of).

The outright star of the show was Dame Jolena Jollychops, played by Leon Craig. Lucky Jason in the front seats (insert another man’s name for future performances) became the butt of the Dame’s jokes and ended up on stage. The Dame managed to get an impromptu spotted dick joke in based on his outfit and generally enjoyed lots of banter with the audience; he really was superb.

There was a good choice of music throughout the panto, with something for everyone. According to my kids this included a couple of songs from Frozen which will definitely appeal to the younger audience members. Other songs were based on ‘Stay with me’, ‘How long will I love you’ and ‘The sun has got his hat on’.

The costumes and set scenery were excellent as always. Dame Jolena had a multitude of outfits (watch out for the stripy one and the feather head dress) and the beast’s costume was particularly realistic. So much so that his first appearance was accompanied by a poor kid in the audience bursting into terrified sobs!

The panto was again directed by Peter Duncan of Blue Peter/Chief Scout fame and I spotted him in the audience. There was a reference to Blue Peter badges, which probably passed by the kids, and lots of cheesy jokes. I won’t spoil things by including them here but I hope I remember them for the next time someone says ‘tell us a joke’. They were my kind of one liners.

The start of the second half was a cracker. A Bollywood dance scene, set to the music of Jai Ho, with the Dame as chief dancer. I wish this part could have been longer, it was certainly my highlight. Bollywood was followed by a Hollywood scene, in which my daughter thought the Dame was dressed as Miss Piggy, rather than (I presume) Marilyn Monroe.

The second half was full of the usual panto antics with the ‘it’s behind you’ farce, more Jason jokes and an audience singalong. Three children went up on stage, including a little girl in a pink dress. It was so funny when she said her nanny had bought the dress, although not the nanny in the audience. Dame Jolena had a field day with that remark! The only thing missing in the second half was the sweet throwing; not that we ever catch any, it’s just one of those panto traditions you expect.

If I’m being really picky, there were a couple of bits that didn’t work quite as well. A mechanical witches eye took on the part of the baddie, giving the audience something to boo at. However it would have been better if there was an actual person playing the baddie, as I found it quite hard to understand what it was saying. Secondly, Tumbletoes the dog was randomly accompanied by a musical clip-clopping whenever it did a tumble or handstand; this was a little annoying but seemed to stop after a while which I was glad of. But neither of these really impacted my enjoyment in any way.

And as for the Slovenian lady? Fortunately she loved the panto, even though she said it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. I heard a couple of other comments from people as they were leaving and they were all in agreement that this year’s pantomime is a classic. If you’ve already got tickets I hope you enjoy it. If not, buy some quick!

More info:

  • The panto runs until 18 January 2015. Tickets are available from the Oxford Playhouse and range from £14.50 to £25.50.

Starling watch at RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

Have you seen a starling murmuration? A murmuration is the name given to the swooping displays made by starlings just before they come into roost. Last winter we were treated to a fabulous display at RSPB Otmoor, and as this is the perfect time of year to see them we decided it was time for a revisit.

On our previous trip to Otmoor we made a mistake and arrived way too early. It was a freezing cold day and as there are no facilities at the reserve we spent a long time standing around in frozen mud trying to keep warm, waiting for the starlings to roost.

This year we set off later. It had rained all day but as we negotiated the traffic delight of Oxford’s ring road the blue skies appeared. Surely a signal.

We duly arrived at the car park, put on our wellies and started the 20 minute walk to the viewing point near the reed beds. A couple of small groups of starlings flew overhead and as we walked we were treated to the most amazing sunset.


Perhaps this should have been an indicator that we were a little on the late side arriving this year. Nevertheless, we joined several other bird watchers at the shelter and proceeded to wait for the starlings to come in. And we waited.

A few minutes later a couple of the group started to walk back and we overheard that the starlings had already put on their display for the day. This was rather disappointing news to us, and to the people next to us who had just driven for 1.5 hours to see them!

So, for the many bird watchers who have landed on my blog over the last couple of weeks to find out what time the starlings roost…….I can tell you that at the end of November it was around 3.40pm. About 10 minutes before we arrived.

Were we disappointed? A little. We hadn’t seen the starlings but we were treated to the most amazing sunset. And there’s something rather magical walking back through a nature reserve in the dark!


More info:

  • Further details about Otmoor reserve can be found here.

10 non-Christmassy family days out in December 2014

I’ve decided to make things hard for myself this month and choose non-Christmassy days out. Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas, but it’s good to escape the madness, particularly when the shops have been full of decorations and present ideas since the end of September. So here’s your monthly round up of family days out this December, and not a strand of tinsel in sight!

1. Paddington Bear trail, London

To tie in with the release of the new Paddington movie you can discover 50 cute brown bear statues on a trail around London. The bears are in place until 30 December, and have been designed by a number of celebrities including Bear Grylls (very apt) and Benedict Cumberbatch. You can find out more details and a trail map here.

There’s also a small ‘Bear called Paddington’ exhibition at the Museum of London until 4 January 2015 so you could easily make a Paddington themed day out. Don’t forget your marmalade sandwiches!

2. Winter solstice, nationwide

The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, and is the official start of winter. Brighton celebrates with a ‘Burning the clocks’ festival on Sunday 21 December; this is a free family event consisting of a lantern parade and fireworks show. Alternatively you could head to Stonehenge to celebrate sunrise (8am) on Monday 22 December. Access details can be found here.

3. Rainham Marshes wild families winter trail, Essex

From Saturday 20 December-Sunday 4 January you can pick up a trail sheet and explore Rainham Marshes reserve whilst solving clues to a mystery. The reserve attracts large flocks of ducks in winter and you can look out over the marshes from the visitor centre. There’s a shop and cafe too to warm up in after your walk.

4. Sherlock Holmes Exhibition, London

If your children are too old for Paddington (does that ever happen?) they might prefer an alternative fictional literary character. There’s a Sherlock Holmes exhibition on at the Museum of London until April 2015. Jess from the Family Travel Times blog visited with her mum, you can read her review here.

5. Hogmanay Family Ceilidh, National Museum of Scotland

There’s a free family ceilidh at the National Museum of Scotland from 2-3.30pn on Wednesday 31 December. Check out the photo of last years ceilidh on the museum website, advertised with the tag ‘it’s enthusiasm not experience that counts’. That sounds like my kind of dance!

6. Family meteor watch on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

The Northumberland International Dark Sky Park is one of the best places in the UK to investigate the night sky. On Saturday 13 December you’ll be able to look through telescopes, talk to experts and hopefully see the Gemenids meteor shower. The event takes place at Once Brewed National Park Centre and is suitable for children age 8+ years. Pre-booking is required, further details here.

7. Robin Hood’s Bay Victorian weekend, North Yorkshire

The event blurb mentions the word Christmas but also offers beach welly wanging, a treasure hunt and a magic lantern show so I’ve decided to include it in the list. Taking place over the weekend of Friday 7 December to Sunday 9 December the organisers encourage visitors to dress in traditional Victorian costumes and enjoy some fun.

8. Family walk: surrounded by seals, Norfolk

Who could resist a walk to see seal pups? On Saturday 6 December 9-11am join the Norfolk Wildlife Trust for a walk along the beach to see the seals. The walk costs £6 for non wildlife trust members with one accompanying adult free per child. Booking is essential, location is confirmed on booking.

9. National Tree Week, nationwide

National Tree Week takes place from 29 November-7 December and marks the start of the winter tree planting season. Why not check this interactive map to see if there are any tree planting events near you? Alternatively you could always take the opportunity to plant a tree in your own garden or local area.

10. Festival of winter walks, nationwide

The Ramblers have organised hundreds of group walks from 20 December-4 January 2015 with plenty of shorter options for families. A great option to walk off some of those excess mince pies; check out your nearest walks on the Ramblers website.

I hope you’ve found an event of interest, please do add a comment if you have any other suggestions.

Bletchley Park and The Imitation Game

Earlier this year I took the kids to Bletchley Park, home of the famous code breakers. I loved the visit, primarily for its sense of atmosphere and untold secret history. Yet whilst my kids enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the explanations and exhibits went over their heads.

Bletchley Park mansion
Bletchley Park mansion

I never got around to writing up our visit but when I heard about the release of The Imitation Game, a film about the code breakers, I knew it would add an extra layer of understanding for the kids. I was right. Watching the film provided a fantastic visual explanation of some of the key work and if your kids are of the right age I’d certainly recommend combining both; read my reviews below.

Bletchley Park

We visited Bletchley Park just before the opening of the new visitor centre and refurbished huts so there was quite a lot of restoration work taking place. The visitor centre is now open so there’s more to see than I’ve reviewed below.

First a tip; buy a guidebook at the start of your visit. It’s excellent and makes for interesting reading. It also contains a map of the site, which I would have found useful if I’d bought it at the start rather than as a souvenir! There was a lack of maps around the site (presumably due to the restoration work) so we found it hard to work out where to visit. I’m still not sure if we saw everything.

Block B recreation, Bletchley Park
Block B recreation, Bletchley Park

Our visit started in Block B where wall boards tell the story of Bletchley Park. It was interesting to read about the lives of people who worked there (particularly the women) and the secrecy that surrounded them. There were several recreated exhibits which showed typical working spaces and a gallery dedicated to Alan Turing. In addition to a collection of Enigma machines there’s a fully operational Bombe machine; a guide was attempting to explain its workings during our visit but I’m afraid I lost track.

Enigma machine
Enigma machine

The Mansion was the headquarters of the Bletchley Park operation, and initially housed the code breaking sections. It’s the most recognisable building in the film, and it is incredible to stand in and imagine the events that have previously taken place within its walls. A slightly less cerebral craft activity was taking place in the Mansion on the day of our visit and the kids had great fun making decorative birds from pine cones. I’m sure there must have been some kind of cryptography link but I don’t know what it was!

Finding out about work on the Bombe
Finding out about work on the Bombe

After the Mansion we visited the huts. Hut 11 was probably our favourite as it housed the Bombe machines and had various kid friendly activities to complete. Hut 4 contains the cafe which we took advantage of during our visit. Huts 3 and 6 were closed for restoration but are now open having been refurbished and kitted out as if they were still in the 1940s.

There is so much more to the Bletchley Park site. My son salivated over the restored cars in the garage, whilst I liked the Polish memorial which celebrated the achievements of three Polish mathematicians who contributed hugely to the code breaking efforts (not mentioned in the film).

Completing the Wrens' training exercise, Bletchley Park
Completing the Wrens’ training exercise, Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park has just opened a new exhibition to celebrate the release of The Imitation Game; this runs until November 2015. Definitely a good reason to revisit especially as my entrance ticket allows unlimited admission for a 12 month period.

The national museum of computing

After our visit to Bletchley Park we popped to a different part of the site to see Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer. The thing that struck me most was the building it’s housed in. We visited on a warm day and the windows were wide open to try and encourage cooling. It’s a world away from the air conditioned data centres of today!

Colossus computer, National Museum of Computing
Colossus computer, National Museum of Computing

As we visited during the holidays the museum had additional activities for kids, involving programming, coding and operating Lego robots. These were the highlight of the visit for my kids so do keep an eye out for them. I noticed the museum’s website is advertising free ‘Weekend Codability’ sessions for children up to the age of 16 years until at least August 2015.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is based on the true story of Alan Turing, the mathematician genius who helped break the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II.

The film starts in the 1950s, when police start to investigate Turing’s life following a break-in at this house. Turing tells the policeman, via flashback scenes, about the war years when he and his colleagues worked in top secret helping to decode German messages. The story focuses on the building of the Bombe machine, and incorporates the relationships between Alan Turing and his colleagues and the web of misinformation the war produced. There are also flashbacks to his teenage years at Sherborne in School, including one harrowing floorboard scene.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Turing brilliantly. Some reviewers suggest that he is the sole outstanding actor in the film yet I thought Charles Dance who played the part of Commander Denniston was excellent too. However I’m afraid the posh English accent of Keira Knightley rather got on my nerves whenever she spoke!

Is The Imitation Game suitable for younger children? The film has a 12A rating, primarily for its references to homosexuality and a couple of swear words. My kids already knew about Alan Turing’s life story from their visit to Bletchley and I’d explained how being gay was illegal until the 1960s. I was concerned with how the film would end (I don’t want to give anything away, but if you know the life story of Turing then you’ll know what I mean) but there were no explicit scenes. Instead the ending is relayed by words on the screen.

My daughter, aged 12, rated the film 9.1 out of 10, and it was definitely a thumbs up from her. My son is a little younger and whilst he understood the story he was confused by some of the flashbacks until I explained them afterwards. I’d therefore hesitate to say that it’s suitable for children much younger than 12 but as always it depends on your individual family. From an adults perspective, I loved the film and would highly recommend it.

More info:

  • Bletchley Park is open daily, apart from some dates over Christmas. Adult tickets cost £15, children aged 12-16 cost £9, children under 12 are free. To get the most out of Bletchley I’d suggest an age of around 12+ years although younger children with a particular interest in maths or computing would also enjoy.
  • The National Museum of Computing is on the same site but is a separate attraction. Entrance costs £5 for adults, £2.50 for under 18 years. The Colossus Gallery is open daily, the rest of the museum opens Thursday-Sunday afternoons. If you are just visiting Colossus there is a reduced entrance fee.