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We made our first ever visit to the Wales Millennium Centre/Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru on 2nd July 2005 to see Cameron Mackintosh's new production of Boubil & Schonberg's Miss Saigon (a Saturday afternoon performance). This was two firsts for me - the Wales Millennium Centre, and unless you count a local production of 'The Sound of Music' many, many years ago, believe it or not I had never seen a stage produced musical.
Firstly an explanation of my title is probably needed. The Wales Millennium Centre has been described in appearance by many locals as resembling an armadillo; and I have to admit I agree with their sentiments. From afar, to me it also looked like a hard tin hat, the kind worn in the trenches, seen in many 1st or 2nd World War films. I am currently studying fifth century Athens with the Open University, and in comparison with the beauty of such buildings as those within the Acropolis in Athens, the Wales Millennium Centre, to me, definitely does not illustrate such beauty. Nor, in my opinion will it ever become a landmark of attractiveness, as many other splendid buildings throughout the world can claim - after all Cardiff has the Millennium Stadium to display visual beauty (some of you will disagree - just my opinion). However, the Wales Millennium Centre's appearance is definitely not its foremost feature, in my eyes.
Wales Millennium Centre is located in the newly developed Cardiff Bay, and is in very close proximity to copious shops, bars and restaurants (some hosting panoramic views around the bay). According to the Wales Millennium Centre's website, the construction began in 2002 and consisted of a 30 month construction period. I have no idea if the construction was finished on time, but I am pretty sure that it has been open for just over a year. I understand that Welsh materials were used in the construction, such as slate and steel, and once closer to the building the Welsh slate is evident on the outside 'shell' of the centre, giving a traditional Welsh feel to it.
Also according to their website, within the centre is the Portmeirion Gift Shop, two coffee bars, a Brasserie Café Bar, a restaurant and a Champagne and Wine Bar. As we had already eaten, and had arranged to have a meal in one of the 'Bay' restaurants after the performance, we did not sample any of these, therefore I am unable to comment on them. Arriving some 30 minutes early, in the hope that there would be an outlet that would provide us with much needed alcoholic refreshment; we made our way upwards into the building. Lifts are available for those unable to walk up the stairs. Two storeys up and we found the welcome sight of a bar that was open - the one the first floor had not been. The sight was welcome - the price certainly was not. Draught lager and beer is not available (we were thirsty and a glass of wine would not suffice!), so we settled for a bottle of Coors beer each, and being prompted by the barman also ordered a bottle each for the interval. We had tickets for the circle which was on the fourth floor - however this did not pose a problem ordering on the second floor - our drinks would be delivered to the fourth floor at the interval. Then for the shock, each bottle cost almost £3.00. For those of you living in areas where this is normal, apologies, but this was almost double what we would normally expect to pay. In fact a group of girls sat at the table next to ours were shocked at paying over £26 for eight glasses of wine.
The décor inside was, as expected very contemporary - not my 'cup of tea' really. It looked a little bit tacky, to me. Everything was a silver/grey colour, and a lot of the décor was of a 'mottled' effect and already seemed outdated. This is just my opinion, and other visitors may well marvel at it. The place where we had to get our drinks from at the interval looked like large oblong bread tins- more crudely 'pigs troughs' - placed on their side and stuck into the walls (and these had already began discolouring). The toilets were very claustrophobic, and there did not seem to be enough for the amount of people who would be in the centre at any one time. They consisted of a long corridor, and the actual toilets themselves had silver/grey floor to ceiling doors, which looked as if it was a wall along the very narrow corridor opposite the wash basin itself. I say wash basin and not basins, as it is one long basin which undulates in tandem with each tap. Having whinged about the décor, prices and the toilets, I do have to say that everything was clean, and the whole centre had a very 'airy' feel about it - and after all this was all preliminary to the auditorium and the show itself (next time we won't arrive so early before a performance).
So, onwards and into the auditorium itself. We queued for quite a while for people to be shown to their seats. Ours were at the very back of the circle and on the aisle as I had requested. For those who do not like heights, this is not a good option, as it was quite high up. There was also an Upper Circle above us, which I am not sure I would be that comfortable with height wise. Our particular view of the stage was magnificent, but we spied empty side 'boxes' just for two people (these were on the sides and closest to the stage), where we thought we could enjoy the show on our own (it was our 23rd Wedding Anniversary after all!), and I asked about 'upgrading' to these. I was told that they were empty because Cameron Mackintosh had specifically requested that they did not go on sale, because they had a very limited view of the stage. We decided not to change our seats to the 'boxes', and this proved to be the right decision, as the whole of the stage was used in this wonderful production. Before the actual performance began, I looked around - there did seem to be a lot of space that could be better utilised. In addition to the empty 'boxes' for two, along the sides of the auditorium were long 'balconies' (seating around six people), which to me resembled log flumes in a theme park. I imagined oars being given to each individual to row, and being on the side I would suspect their view was somewhat impeded. I decided to check when I got home to see if these 'log flumes' were more expensive than our own seats, and was relieved that they were not. Ours, in the circle had been the most expensive, and they were well worth every penny.
Miss Saigon itself was a wonderful production, and as I said earlier the first ever stage produced musical I had seen. I was enthralled all the way through (I normally fidget and look at my watch). Being seated at the rear of the circle, we were treated to the wooden floors and the doors creaking, whenever somebody needed to come in or go out. Perhaps these are just 'teething' problems (I have absolutely no knowledge at all of wooden floors and doors creaking and whether it will get better with age). In the programme we are told that there are screens outside the auditorium, showing the performance, and that latecomers will only be allowed in at a convenient break in the production, and I have no reason to doubt this as late arrivals were admitted after about 20 minutes, when there was an appropriate break - however after this people seemed to be able to come and go as and when they pleased - which I'm comfortable with, as I don't like the thought of being locked in and not able to go out if I wanted to at any stage.
At the interval, our drinks were delivered where we were told they would be (on the fourth floor, even though booked from the second floor - wow technology that worked, and staff who did exactly what they promised to).
There is a lot of information on the website - www.wmc.org.uk such as how the building was made and what it is made of; information about future performances and how to get there. Booking is easy, and can be done online or by phone - credit/debit card needed for both of these of course. I would think you can actually book at the centre itself, although as I did not use this method myself, this is only an assumption. There is a plan of the seating in the auditorium on the website, but this does not give seat numbers, so for those of you like me who like to choose a specific seat, online booking is not the most ideal method. I booked our tickets by phone, and found the staff extremely helpful. Of course being in the Capital of Wales there is an option to speak to a Welsh speaking operative, and I believe the staff within the centre all speak Welsh as well as English. I am not able to give specific prices of tickets, as it depends on the performance, and details are available from the website. However, ours were £35 each.
Overall, you may have guessed, I was not as impressed with the Wales Millennium Centre as I had hoped to be from the outside appearance nor before we got inside the auditorium. However, the auditorium itself made the day - yes, even with the creaking floors and 'log flumes' on the side! I also cannot really comment on the acoustic value of the actual auditorium, as although I think it was superb, I cannot say whether this is attributed to Cameron Mackintosh's special effects or the auditorium itself. Whichever takes the credit for the acoustics, they were truly magnificent. To put the credibility to the test we have booked to see 'The Marriage of Figaro' next February.