Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

Diversity Uncaged

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th May, 2017

 

This touring production could not be timelier.  With anti-gay sentiments (aka idiocy) on the rise globally, the show reminds us that people are people and love is love.

In St Tropez, a nightclub has gained notoriety for its drag queens, foremost among whom is the delectable Zaza, or Albin when he’s at home, partner to the club’s owner, Georges.  When Georges’s son, Jean-Michele announces his engagement to the daughter of bigot-in-chief Dindon, an old-school politician, Albin finds himself edged out of the picture – and he’s not the kind to go sit in the corner…

It’s a conventional musical about alternative lifestyles, with its heart on its sleeve and its message loud, proud and clear.

John Partridge is in his element as Albin/Zaza, capturing the character’s brittleness as well as the camp mannerisms, and boy, can he hold a note!  It takes a while for Albin’s warmth to come out but when it does, it is beautifully understated in the show’s most touching moments.  Partridge’s Albin is a Northerner, coming across not so much as French Riviera as Canal Street, Manchester.  Adrian Zmed is more grounded as the charming Georges, while Dougie Carter sings like a dream as Jean-Michele – clearly a young man with a glittering future ahead.  Samson Ajewole is a scream as Jacob the flamboyant housemaid, showing us that families come in all sorts of configurations.   Alexandra Robinson is sweet as fiancée Anne, just as Paul F Monaghan is blustering as bigot-to-be-pilloried Dindon.  At his side, Su Douglas is Madame Renaud, with a couple of surprises of her own.

The extra-special treat of the night is Marti Webb as restaurant owner Jacqueline.  She’s still got it, that clear, strong voice, that poise, that presence.  Marvellous.

Harvey Fierstein’s book is funny and moving.  Jerry Herman’s score contains some iconic numbers (I Am What I Am, The Best of Times, Look Over There…) and the lyrics are witty and poignant.

A troupe of chorines fills out the musical numbers with more feathers than an ostrich sanctuary and more sequins than ten years of Strictly Come DancingLa Cage may offer colourful escapism but in truth it tells us that there are more ways of living in the real world than conservatives and prigs would have us believe.  This could well be one of the most important musicals ever written, especially since there are people and movements around who think we gays are somehow less than human.

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Adrian Zmed and John Partridge being fabulous


Striking

BILLY ELLIOT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 8th March, 2017

 

Familiar from the much-loved film, the musical version, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, comes to Birmingham as part of its first national tour, and the Hippodrome is a good fit for this West End-quality show.

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, this is the story of a young boy whose interest in ballet is kindled when he wanders into a class in favour of the boxing lessons his dad would prefer he attend.  The dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson spots real talent in the boy and arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet school, opening a can of worms that include cultural expectation, gender roles, male sexuality… There is more to the story than a boy’s struggles to achieve his dream.  Billy faces prejudices like a wall of riot shields – the police presence and the bellicose spirit of the miners shows us that such attitudes are of the past, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher is very much still with us as the country continues to be shafted (that’s a mining joke) by the Tories.

Annette McLaughlin is superb as the tough-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, able to face up to the stubborn, prideful figure of Billy’s Dad (a highly credible Martin Walsh) and Billy’s brother Tony (a passionate Scott Garnham).  The supporting players are second-to-none and there is much to enjoy in the troupe of girls who are nowhere near Billy’s level of skill and prowess.  Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite puts in a surprisingly athletic turn in a very funny dance routine, and there is heart-warming character work from Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma. Elliot Stiff stops the show with his portrayal of Billy’s best friend Michael – the two of them perform a number with some oversized frocks that brings the house down.

If I had to pick a standout moment, I’d plump for when Billy dances with his older self (Luke Cinque-White), an exhilaratingly beautiful pas de deux.

Inevitably, the night belongs to Billy – on this occasion performed by the remarkable, phenomenal Lewis Smallman (who hails from nearby West Bromwich!).  Hardly off-stage, he sings, he dances, he acts and – perhaps most difficult: pulls off a credible North-East accent!  It’s a breath-taking display of talent and skill, humour and emotion.  Exceptional.

Astounding, life-affirming and joyous, Billy’s story is eclipsed only by the talent on show by the performers.  The indomitable human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity and setbacks is a universal theme, but you will rarely see the message so eye-poppingly presented.

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Lewis Smallman and Luke Cinque-White

 


What a Dick!

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2016

 

The Hippodrome’s pantomime is invariably the biggest and boldest and this year marks the triumphant return of John Barrowman to the theatre after an absence of eight years.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  Barrowman is the consummate entertainer, singing, dancing, joking, working the crowd, all with his trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Star quality is written all over him – and with such a big star, the production values rise to meet him.  From start to finish, the extravagant staging, with many a Wow moment, impresses your socks off, including the now-obligatory 3D sequence.

It begins with EastEnders’ Steve McFadden as King Rat – we quickly learn even he is not the biggest rat in London.  McFadden clearly enjoys himself playing the villain and he handles King Rat’s doggerel verse with aplomb.  He also shows himself to be a good sport, as straight man to Idle Jack’s mockery.  Idle Jack is played by Hippodrome panto favourite Matt Slack (he’s already booked to play Buttons next year!) and the warm welcome he receives when he first appears almost takes the roof off.   Slack is a talented clown and mimic, relentlessly funny and highly skilled.

Andrew Ryan returns to play the dame, Sarah the Cook, delivering the goods – I feel he could be given more – a slapstick or ‘slosh’ scene, which is the only sixpence missing from this Christmas pudding.

Much laughter is to be had because of veteran double-act the Krankies, whose humour and routines slot right into the panto format.  The act still works and their adlibs are sharp and hilarious.  It’s only disturbing if you think about it…

Jodie Prenger makes a sprightly Fairy Bow Bells – her voice blending sweetly with Barrowman’s for a duet.  Danielle Hope is a charming Alice and Kage Douglas’s good-looking Sultan is a pleasant surprise.  Taofique Folarin’s Brummie Cat is also a treat – again, I would like to see him being given more to do.

The cast is supported by a tireless company of dancers (choreographed by Alan Harding) and a hard-working band under the baton of Robert Willis.  Ben Cracknell’s lighting enhances the special effects (courtesy of The Twins FX) while remaining in keeping with traditional panto conventions.

There’s more of an adult tinge to the humour than other shows in the region, making this a panto that caters to all tastes.  All in all, this Dick is a breath-taking spectacle to make you laugh-out-loud and ooh and aah.  Once again, the Hippodrome pulls out all the stops and provides a highlight of the season.

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Comic Strip

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th November, 2016

 

The stage adaptation of the hit film is doing the rounds again and while we may feel familiar with it, we perhaps forget how brilliant it is.  Ostensibly – and undeniably – a comedy, Simon Beaufoy’s remarkable script is also a study of masculinity in an adverse economic climate.  The play is set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain but guess what, many of the themes are all too pertinent today.  The emasculating effects of long-term unemployment, redundancy of the male, with women bringing home the bacon and, in a hilarious scene, even pissing standing up, makes the male characters feel obsolete – redundant personally as well as economically.  Relationships inevitably come under strain – one man can’t even bring himself to tell his wife he has lost his job, another faces losing access to his son… And Beaufoy also manages to mix in issues of body image and objectification – the men don’t like it now the roles are reversed.

Above all, the play remains very, very funny.  The audience is certainly up for it, whooping and cheering when lead actor Gary Lucy (Gaz) makes his first appearance.  Perhaps they have mistaken it for a Chippendales-type cabaret show but, thankfully, they immediately settle down to listen to the unfolding drama.  Yes, there are whoops and cheers still but these feel in support of the characters and their journey rather than plain old-fashioned catcalling of the actors.

Director Jack Ryder manages all the diverse elements of the script perfectly, timing the gags and surprises to maximum effect while giving the issues time to breathe.  The more sentimental moments, for example between Dave and his wife Jean, are handled with a light touch and are all the sweeter and more poignant for it.  Gary Lucy makes an affably laddish lead, even if his accent roams around the North West at times, while Kai Owen’s ever-dieting Dave is an excellent, down-to-earth foil for Gaz’s dreams and schemes.  Louis Emerick’s Horse balances physical humour (his audition piece is a scream) with quiet desperation – he has no alternative but to take part in the get-rich-quick project (In case you don’t know – where have you been? – the men get together to stage a strip show in order to make cash).  It’s not just the working class affected by unemployment: middle-class Gerald (the excellent Andrew Dunn) is co-opted to bring his Conservative Club choreography to the troupe.   And it’s not just straights, either.  Hard times affect all walks of society.  Chris Fountain ups the tottie factor as out-and-proud Guy, another facet of maleness Beaufoy holds up – Guy is neither camp nor delicate and his burgeoning relationship with shy, slow-witted Lomper (Anthony Lewis, in a layered characterisation) is underplayed to touching effect.  Yet one of the strongest performances of the night comes from the remarkable Felix Yates as Gaz’s nine-year-old son Nathan, clearly the grown-up in their relationship!  It’s not just the breadwinner that suffers when there is no bread to be won.

The strip-show finale is an exhilarating climax.  The characters ‘go the full monty’ as if to say, We are men and here we are.  Stripped of everything else, it’s a moment of self-assertion and defiance.  There is a lot of man-flesh on show but more than that, the show exhibits a lot of heart.  Uplifting in a time of recession, the play, like the film before it, remains life-affirming and a great deal of fun.

(The tour is proving extremely popular – if you want to see it in Birmingham, an extra matinee has been added on Thursday 17th)

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Under a vest: L to R: Louis Emerick, Andrew Dunn, Kai Owen, Gary Lucy, Anthony Lewis. Front: Chris Fountain. (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Worth Every Cent

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 24th October, 2016

 

“On December 4, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to play together for the first and only time.  His name was Sam Phillips… the place was Sun Records…  That night they made rock ‘n’ roll history.”

The above caption sets the scene for a dramatic reconstruction of that historic meeting and an excuse to play a lot of old songs!  Set in the recording studio in which the aforementioned artistes cut their first hits, the play is a jukebox musical of sorts, as well as a biography.  Above all, it’s a tribute concert to four icons of American popular music.

Jason Donovan is Phillips, our narrator – since when is pop heartthrob Donovan the senior member of any cast?!  Where does the time go?! – and as he welcomes the men back to Sun Records, he shows us, in brief flashback scenes how he first encountered each one.  Donovan’s Dukes of Hazzard accent is in keeping with the setting and he still looks great.  He doesn’t get to sing, though.

We meet Jerry Lee Lewis, a young and talented piano player and something of a loudmouth.  Martin Kaye dazzles with his piano-playing and amuses with his irrepressible characterisation.  Lewis rubs Carl Perkins (Matthew Wycliffe) up the wrong way, giving rise to most of the tension of the piece – and also a good deal of the humour in the form of some ‘banterous’ put-downs from both parties.  Wycliffe is absolutely excellent as Perkins, and he can’t half play a mean gee-tah.   Robbie Durham’s Johnny Cash brings a deeper voice to the ensemble and Ross William Wild’s Elvis Presley is vocally outstanding.  The hits keep coming: Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire – but a standout moment for me is when Elvis’s girlfriend of the time, Dyanne (Katie Ray) treats us to a rendition of Peggy Lee’s Fever.

The plot is wafer-thin and the script, riddled with funny lines, is peppered with nostalgic references (back when gas was 25 cents) and dramatic irony (we know Elvis will return to Vegas).  It’s also rather poignant when the foursome pose for the famous snapshot – we know what’s ahead for them, the tragedies that await them as well as their successes.

Supported by James Swinnerton on bass and Ben Cullingworth on drums, the cast, playing and singing live, generate a lot of energy that proves irresistible.  It’s a feel-good show that gets your toes tapping from the get-go and dancing along before the finish.  Each of the four stars is superbly represented by this talented cast, who create an authentic sound and remind us why rock ‘n’ roll was such a revolutionary sound when it first emerged.

Breath-taking.

 

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Keep your feet off his footwear: Matthew Wycliffe as Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins

 

 


Dick jokes (and sings and dances)

Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016

 

Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime.  This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole.   I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live!  and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.

Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow.  Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells.  Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.

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I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne.  What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.

Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.

John Barrowman:  Congratulations!  Put your bum here.

We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William!  Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.

JB: I’m looking forward to giving it.  All over Birmingham.

Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am.  And that laugh is infectious.  Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.

Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.

JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!

Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?

JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance.  They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing.   When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on?  But now I get it.  I totally get it.  I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things.  We make fun of the audience and of ourselves.  People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.

Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?

JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights.  I love shopping in Birmingham.  The German market over Christmas is just amazing.  Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here.  Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.

Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?

JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible.  The Cat’s going to be Brummie.  I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet.  I’ve asked for someone very hunky.

Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?

JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes?  I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing.  He’s not getting to say the tag lines.

Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?

JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years.  The reason it does work is there’s no egos.  We’re there to have fun.  We’re like a family.  We have our arguments but we fix it and move on.  The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself.  Part of the show is what happens in the wings.  If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage.  If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.

He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto.  With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.

JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver.  And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.

I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick.  Just about.

Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?

JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)

Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat.  The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream.  3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence.  The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.

Rehearsals begin at the end of November.  A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs.  It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them.  I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.

Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January.  Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com

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Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Oh, What A Beautiful Show!

OKLAHOMA!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 30th June, 2015

 

Having seen this production earlier in the tour, it was an absolute treat to be given the chance to see it again. I loved everything about it the first time and my love is renewed and redoubled to catch it a second time.

The material, of course, is sublime. Richard Rodgers’s melodic score, Oscar Hammerstein II’s witty book and lyrics, blend to create sumptuous entertainment, and this high quality production from Music & Lyrics and Northampton’s Derngate Theatre serves this classic supremely well.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh evokes both period and place, sending up, like Hammerstein does, the charmingly parochial attitudes (cf Kansas City) creating a community with its own moral values. She brings out the humour of the script and has her superlative company play it with heart as big as all outdoors.

Unofficial matriarch Aunt Eller rules the roost in a stonking performance by Belinda Lang, hard-boiled with a soft centre. Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is feisty and bold, with a sweet but powerful singing voice. From the off, Laurey bickers with cowboy Curly – in a homespun Beatrice and Benedick way – and we know they are made for each other. As for Curly – well – you fall in love with Ashley Day as soon as his voice announces, clear as bell, what kind of morning it is. Day has the matinee idol good looks, the irreverent attitude, heart-on-his-sleeve, good humour. He sings like an angel in a cowboy hat.

A rival for Laurey’s affections, although a non-starter, is live-in farm hand Jud Fry – a towering performance from Nic Greenshields. His operatic bass blends well with Curly’s tenor for the ironic duet, Pore Jud Is Daid.   He is a barely contained mass of menace, a dark presence in this otherwise idyllic land. Kavanaugh balances the comedy with tension: Pore Jud is volatile enough to explode at any second.

Gary Wilmot is in his element as itinerant peddler Ali Hakim, delivering more than ribbons and other fripperies on his rounds. Wilmot’s comic timing is flawless – the jokes and business still play fresh. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie, a girl of distractable virtue, is a belter, in terms of selling her big number I Cain’t Say No, and in characterisation. It’s a dream of a cast, supported by an excellent chorus, including great character work from Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings and Simon Anthony, appearing in this performance as Will Parker.

During the interval I hear some purist complaining that the cylindrical hay bales with and on which the cowboys dance come from a later, mechanised age. “They should be haystacks!” he moans, balefully.  I think he’s looking for something to criticise and is clutching at straws.  I’d rather sacrifice agricultural accuracy for theatrical expediency: Drew McOnie’s spectacular and exuberant  choreography would miss those bales terribly.

If you can overlook the hay issue, and most people seem able to, this is a truly wonderful production of a masterpiece, the pinnacle of its genre. Sometimes humanity gets things right and produces a perfect classic. Mozart did it with Don Giovanni, Walt Disney did it with Pinocchio. And Rodgers and Hammerstein did it with Oklahoma! This is popular art that speaks to us on many levels, through solid storytelling and life-affirming values.

The tour has just six weeks left to run. I urge you to catch it if you can.

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)