The holidays are over, the sounds of First Night have faded and it’s early January in Chatham. While some may think of heading south, several dozen members of the Friends of Monomoy Theatre are heading northeast to London. For 30 years the group has sponsored a biennial London theater trip in January, and with the exchange rate suddenly very favorable, there’s another great reason to go this year.
In spite of its northerly location in relation to Chatham, London’s ocean-warmed climate is temperate, with winter lows rarely falling below freezing. Sidney Harvey, a travel agent with Northside Travel in Dennis who created and has organized the trip for the past three decades, sees advantages to January travel “across the pond.”
“It’s less expensive, less crowded and while it may be chilly it’s never unbearable,” she noted.
As we ride a chartered coach from Chatham to Logan, reports of a blizzard in Great Britain and cancellations at Heathrow begin to filter in to make us wonder whether the conventional wisdom has it wrong. But by the time we arrive in London all that is gone and we check into the St. James Court, located two blocks from Buckingham Palace and within a short distance of many of the attractions the city has to offer.
As part of the package, each participant receives tickets to three shows of their choosing and a weeklong travel pass for the tube or the iconic double-decker London buses. There is a half day sightseeing tour early in the week and a day trip out of London midway through the trip. A backstage tour of a London theater is included as is a cocktail party where a London theater professional will speak and mingle with the group.
With lots of free time on the agenda it’s a trip that even those who don’t like group trips can enjoy, Harvey said. She has created a trip that Alan Rust, artistic director of Monomoy Theatre, has been enjoying for nearly 20 years.
“It’s a unique trip that appreciates the intelligence of the people going on it,” he said. “You can see plays that are never coming to the U.S., especially at the National Theater.”
This year there are two dozen travelers, and the half day coach tour of London is on the first full day we are there. We are guided by David, a retired “bobby,” or police officer, who once worked as a member of Princess Margaret’s household. David, who is personally booked by Harvey and is a regular on this trip, tailors his route to the group, recognizing that most of us have in fact taken this trip before. This year we have just learned of the death of Lord Snowden, the former husband of Princess Margaret, so in addition to several iconic stops, we share some behind-the-scenes experiences of that household and its members.
Plenty of free time follows and group members are off on their own, visiting museums, friends and family, attending churches or evensong services, exploring the city. “London changes constantly,” Rust said, “there is always something new, different and exciting going on.”
Just a two-block walk from London’s subway and surrounded by bus stops, the hotel is in an ideal location to get anywhere in the city easily. And the hikers in the group are happily walking everywhere, raking up 20,000 steps and more in a day as we go from museums to palaces to pubs in between theater performances.
While three shows are included in the price of the trip, several choose to see more than that. “Some people choose to see a matinee and an evening performance every day,” Harvey said. Shows ranging from “The Kite Runner” to “Peter Pan,” from “Half a Sixpence” to “Love’s Labor Lost” are among the group’s selections, and members have added tickets to Cirque du Soleil, the ballet and the opera to their itineraries. Harvey personally purchases all the tickets in advance and works out the logistics of the calendar so that schedules don’t overlap with whatever else is going on. With two dozen people going to 22 events within one week’s time, it takes Harvey a “solid week with no distractions” and a spreadsheet to get it all lined up.
A behind stage tour of the National Theater, Britain’s renowned publicly supported theater on the South Bank of the Thames, is next up. With its three unique stages, the National puts on as many as 25 shows a year, from re-imagined classics – such as Greek tragedy and Shakespeare – to modern masterpieces and new work by contemporary writers.
We hear behind the scene stories and learn more about the National Theatre and its founding by a group that included Laurence Olivier at the next afternoon’s cocktail party. Joining the group is Richard Magnam, the stage manager under Olivier at the time the National became a reality, first at the Old Vic and then in 1976 in its current home.
The trip out of London this time is a tour of Leeds Castle, the serene and historic castle in a lake which in the summer can host as many as 10,000 guests a day. And then a stop in Rochester to walk in the footsteps of Dickens who called this area home for many years. An informative tour of the local guild hall enlightens travelers who wonder where he got some of his locations for novels like “Great Expectations.”
Previous trips have included excursions to Canterbury, Brighton, Stratford-upon-Avon (to see Judi Dench) and two years ago at the height of the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” to its namesake Highclere Castle. With her connections, Harvey was able to arrange for a private tour even though the castle was officially closed.
Harvey has been organizing group travel experiences for nearly 65 years, starting in California and then after she moved to South Orleans and was affiliated with the old Bradshaw Travel in Chatham. The Monomoy Theatre trip was started in the mid '80s when she was approached by Jordan Popkin, an active theater supporter, to put something together for theater lovers to experience London and has continued in the same format every other year ever since.
For more information about the trip and other upcoming activities see the Monomoy Theatre website at www.monomoytheatre.org or contact Sidney Harvey at Sidney@northsidetravel.com.