Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

Louder Than Words

#JESUIS

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th February, 2018

 

Everything has a hashtag these days, doesn’t it?  We all remember the #JeSuisCharlie one used as a show of solidarity after the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.  But other atrocities don’t receive the coverage on social, or any other media.  The idea behind this new dance production is that other atrocities are being perpetrated and the people caught up in them also exist, they can also proclaim “Je suis” (I am.  I exist)

Director-choreographer Aakash Odedra has put together a troupe of dancers whose initial brief was to portray what life is like in present-day Turkey, but the show developed into something less specific yet more universal.  Rather than particulars, we get types.  A man in a long, military coat, moves jerkily, making weird angles.  He is the oppressor, it transpires, preying on the rest of the ensemble, often singling one member out, male or female, and putting his hand over their mouth and dragging them away, like a lion picking off individuals from the herd.  To a soundtrack of sound effects: sirens, feedback, electric humming, the action plays out, becoming more frenetic, more distorted when loud music is added to the mix.

The ensemble, faced with a microphone, fall over each other for their chance to speak out – until the Man comes. Between blackouts, we glimpse striking tableaux, some of them Caravaggio would be proud of.  Imprisoned in narrow strips of light, they shake wildly.  They are wrapped in lengths of cling film, robbing them of individuality, dehumanising them.  To sound effects of the sea, they crawl, washed up on the beach, dead – we have all seen images of refugees who have met this fate, especially their children.

The show is a kaleidoscope of imagery and sound.  Some of it is abstract and you get a general feel for what’s going on.  Much of it is more directly recognisable.  All of it is powerful.

I don’t think ‘exhilarating’ is the word I want here, but I am certainly invigorated in a way by the energy of the performers.  Involving disturbing material translated into movement, this piece is not only a demonstration of what Dance can do but also a reminder of what is going on, what people are doing to each other in the world today.  Gripping, inventive and pertinent, #JeSuis engages us intellectually and emotionally.  Admirable.

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Moving Moves

TRANSLUNAR PARADISE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 31st January, 2018

 

Theatre Ad Infinitum are reviving their hit show from seven years ago and it’s a good fit for the Hippodrome’s studio space.  The cast of two, accompanied by an accordionist-vocalist, perform a dumb show about loss and moving on, using masks and movement and a bit of heavy breathing.  It is the story of a widower, an old man at a loss because of loss.  He makes two cups of tea, forgetting his wife is gone.  Flashback scenes replay his memories: taking her to the hospital, her flatlining… We go back to earlier, happier times: how they first met, for example, their first dance.  There are also unhappier times: her miscarriage – sensitively and poignantly portrayed.  In the memory scenes, the masks are removed and the movements are more stylised, more staccato.

Masks usually dehumanise the wearer – ask any psychopathic killer in a horror film – and all expression comes from the actions and gestures of the wearer.  Even though the actors use one hand to hold the masks, this doesn’t reduce their ability to express what their characters are going through, their thoughts and reactions, while enabling swift donning and doffing of their old faces as we go in and out of flashbacks.  We recognise the humanity of the elderly couple, and it helps that their life together follows a familiar pattern, moments we can recognise and to which we can relate.  It’s basically the first ten minutes of Up! performed with grace, dance and gentle humour.

George Mann and Deborah Pugh are remarkable in their range and precision.  Inventive use is made of sound effects: the man’s wartime experiences, for example, and his PTSD.  On the accordion and singing or whistling all the way through, the versatile Sophie Crawford provides the soundtrack – there is humour here too, like the sudden shift into Girl From Ipanema when the couple get into a lift.

It’s an absorbing piece, amusing, touching and uplifting, deceptively simple and impressively presented.  Mime worthy of your time.

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Facing up to loss: George Mann and Deborah Pugh (Photo: Idil Sukan)

 

 


Strictly the Best

CINDERELLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd January, 2018

 

It’s my final panto of the season and I’ve saved the biggest until last.  The Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza can be relied on to provide glitz and spectacle, almost to excess – Can you have too many sequins?  I think not.

In the title role, Suzanne Shaw is a spirited Cinderella, warm and friendly and assured – Alan McHugh’s script doesn’t give Cinders chance to demonstrate her goodness (and therefore worthiness for the Prince) – there is no gathering firewood for an old woman scene, for example; we have to take her goodness as hearsay…

Local girl and soul diva Beverley Knight is absolutely stunning as the Fairy Godmother – vocally, a dream, but she also enters into the panto spirit, playing on her Wolverhampton accent to comic effect.  A duet with one Grumbleweed (hilariously sabotaged by the other one) is a highlight of the evening.  Yes, the Grumbleweeds are back, having undergone something of a Sugababes change in line-up.  They bring old-school, variety club comedy to their roles as the Broker’s Men – their routine involving a treacherous padded stool remains funny no matter how many times you see it.

Hollyoaks heartthrob Danny Mac is perfectly cast as Prince Charming and, of course, there is plenty of opportunity to show off his Strictly skills.  Watching on the telly is one thing, but nothing beats the impact of seeing such dancing and showmanship demonstrated live.  Almost impossibly handsome, Mac could make a living as a Disney prince.  He is supported by Gary Watson’s camp and likeable Dandini, but Mac’s highlight is a dance-off with the Hippodrome’s resident funny man, Matt Slack, back for his umpteenth year in a row.

Slack is in his element as Buttons.  Hardly what you might call a subtle performer, he manages to wring a little pathos into Buttons’s unrequited love for Cinders, and his routine with children volunteers from the audience shows off his skills and tests his professionalism.  The show affords him chance to rattle off innuendo (there’s a snack-related scene and one in which he lip-synchs to a host of song clips) and we know we’re in safe hands for a good laugh.  There is one moment, however, when the wheels almost come off.  It is usually the prerogative of the villain to insult the audience – otherwise, any interplay with individuals is usually good-natured and cheeky.  Here though, Slack turns a video camera on the crowd, projecting faces onto a screen for all to see.  It’s excruciatingly uncomfortable and unnecessary, and more to do with Theatre of Cruelty than pantomime.  That part aside, this is a marvellously entertaining production.

Here the Ugly Sisters are vicious drag queens: Voluptua (a deadpan Ceri Dupree) and Verucca (a gurning David Dale) swan around in ridiculously OTT outfits, spouting barbed remarks, many of them off-colour.  It’s wonderful stuff but their nastiness is in keeping with the needs of the plot: their bullying of Cinderella loses none of its cruelty, much as we enjoy their bitchiness.

The transformation scene that closes the first act is splendid on the grand scale but it is the dancing and the old-fashioned humour that really make this show sparkle, with Beverley Knight and Danny Mac bringing the star quality to a solid and skillful cast.

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Having a ball: Suzanne Shaw and Danny Mac

 


Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 


Here Comes A Chopper

MISS SAIGON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st August, 2017

 

Schonberg & Boubil’s ‘other’ musical comes to Brum for a lengthy stay – I can’t see its popularity diminishing over the summer.  Not having seen it for 13 years or so, I am reminded of the show’s emotionally charged excellence; it’s almost like coming to it fresh.  Of course, if you know Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll know where the plot is heading but tragedy expected is no less affecting than tragedy unforeseen.  Perhaps it is more so.

Sooha Kim is our ill-fated heroine, a massive voice in a tiny frame, singing with such range and power.  Kim (the character) retains her loyalty, innocence and naivety to the last, while Kim (the performer) repeatedly knocks our socks off as fast as we can put them back on.  A truly stunning appearance of undeniable star quality.

Leading man Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is buff in all the right places and while his voice blends perfectly in duet with Kim, it could do with a bit more muscle for his solos.  Gerald Santos’s Thuy is a striking villain but of the men, it is Red Concepcion as the opportunistic pimp, The Engineer, who truly stands out.  Morally repugnant, we take to him because of his overt humanity – plus he adds a touch of humour to the heart-rending drama.

There are also strong appearances from Marsha Songcome as Gigi, and Zoe Doano as Chris’s wife Ellen.  Ryan O’Gorman’s John, along with a male chorus, sings beautifully about Bui Doi – the kids left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them – even if it does come across like a charity appeal.

This is musical theatre on the grandest scale.  A company of 69 performers flood the stage while a 15-piece orchestra delivers Schonberg’s sumptuous score under the capable baton of James McKeon.  Scene transitions are almost imperceptible as scenery floats away into darkness, while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds to the sultry atmosphere – it’s a warm night in the Hippodrome auditorium, which enhances the Far East feel.  Technically, the production is excellent: the long-awaited appearance of the helicopter is a thrilling reminder of the power of practical effects.

A powerfully dramatic story set among global events, Kim’s tale is perhaps a metaphor for the treatment of developing countries by Western foreign policy.  We take what we want and leave them to struggle, often worse off than before our intervention.  Otherwise, it’s a stirring personal tale that stirs the emotions to an operatic extent in which men are users and abusers and women are objects to be possessed or discarded.  Kim’s inability to realise this, her stubborn clinging to her idealised vision of Chris, is her fatal flaw.

This is a chance to be blown away by spectacle as much as to be touched by the drama.  Lacking the sweep of Les Mis, Miss Saigon concentrates its emotions into a smaller cast of main players but is equally as moving.  A theatrical event that should not be missed.

MISS SAIGON. Ashley Gilmour 'Chris' and Sooha Kim 'Kim'. Photo by Johan Persson (1)

East meets West: Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

 


Curiosity kills the Dog

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 4th July, 2017

 

It’s my third time seeing this marvellous production and I can reveal the piece loses none of its power to charm or to move even if you know what’s coming.  The death of a neighbour’s dog sets 15-year-old Christopher on a quest to find out whodunit.  He’s a ‘special’ boy, with Asperger’s, and we view events and the world at large, through his eyes.  To this end, the set is a box, a blackboard box with a grid that lights up like the chalk lines Christopher draws on the floor.  The walls are also versatile, containing doors, drawers and cupboards for handy prop-grabbing.  Cast members become pieces of furniture and white blocks do the rest.  It’s a mish-mash of physical and narrative theatre and it works like a dream.  Simon Stephens’s masterly adaptation does full justice to Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel.

Scott Reid is marvellous as the intrepid Christopher, whose literal take on things provides humour for us and confusion for him.  It’s not just the characterisation, which convinces utterly, but it’s also the movement skills that impress.  He’s the focal point of the production but around him the rest of the cast is equally good.

Lucianne McEvoy is Christopher’s mentor and our narrator, Siobhan, providing clarity to the action, reading from Christopher’s account while scenes are flashily reconstructed.  David Michaels is Ed, Christopher’s long-suffering Dad – love pours out of him in various forms: anger and frustration being chief among them!  Mum Judy (Emma Beattie) takes a pragmatic approach – emotions run high and have to be contained for Christopher’s peace of mind.  Beattie and Michaels both bring emotional depth that Christopher cannot – and we glimpse what it must be like to care for someone like Christopher as well as gaining awareness and understanding of the way he is.

Marianne Elliott’s flashy and clever production is rooted in humanity – we see how Christopher is treated by figures in authority and unsuspecting members of the public – and while there is humour in these exchanges it is never at Christopher’s expense.  And we begin to think Christopher has a point, that people should say what they mean instead of dressing their words in euphemism and metaphor.   Elliott’s use of non-naturalistic techniques serves to emphasise Christopher’s humanness.   Beneath the unconventional methods of address, there is someone here with whom we can empathise.  The show, therefore, is a metaphor for the character!

Endlessly inventive, superbly executed, funny, gripping and touching, this is a play to savour and a production to enjoy.  Christopher’s journey (the mystery is solved by the interval) is more than his wish to solve the crime, and we root for him as he tries to understand life and pass his A-Level in Maths.  It’s a crowd-pleaser, accessible and enlightening, showing that just as there are other ways of perceiving the world, there are other forms of theatre.

How gratifying to see the Hippodrome packed out for something other than a musical!

Scott Reid (Christopher Boone) and ensemble, NT Curious Incident Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg-min

Scott Reid and ensemble (Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg-min)

 


Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

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Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)