Worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe?

In praise of the West End Whingers.

There's an awful lot of earnest analysis of the theatre: the blogosphere is crammed with the stuff. But the West End Whingers swim satirically against this tide of dullness and concern themselves with the frivolous and the peripheral - the décor, the bar, the loos.

The Whingers are Phil and Andrew (no surnames given), and their bias is made plain: the proscenium is in, the traverse is out. Puppets are out. Fringe theatre is also out because it's in Zone 2 "or worse". With scant regard for the niceties of criticism, or indeed of performance, their stated aim is to figure out whether it's "worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe;" they eschew the star-rating system, and use instead glasses of wine.

The WEW's were inspired to take up blogging when they found themselves at the Apollo theatre, watching Fool for Love ("fools for paying") and thought they would take their bitching further than the bar. They shot to fame earlier this year after dubbing the Lloyd-Webber Phantom sequel, "Paint Never Dries" - by all accounts His Lordliness was most put out. A London set designer has apparently called them "underachieving sad cocks".

One of my favourite reviews of theirs has to be of the Nigerian Death and the King's Horseman at the National, done in the style of an email scammer:

If you put on in the UK this play could earn $12
trillion (TWELVE TRILLION DOLLARS) for the right
theatre and that is why I write to you.

If put on in the UK with a big trusted director
like Mr Rufus Norris perhaps the people of London
will pay as much as £10 (TEN POUNDS) to see it, especially
if it is put on with dancing and sweeping and DRUMMING.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder