Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

Yes, Queen!

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 8th March, 2019

 

Loosely inspired by English history, this story of one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth begins with an overture that includes a sinewy rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’, quite anachronistically, before building up to a frenetic series of crashing chords; conductor Carlo Rizzo throws himself around energetically.  It’s an exhilarating opening.

Elizabeth loves Roberto, but Roberto loves Sara, wife to his best mate, the Duke of Nottingham.  Roberto stands accused of treason but Elizabeth offers him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can go free if he names her rival for his affections.  Roberto would rather die than put Sara in the frame.  There’s some business with love tokens (a ring from Elizabeth, a scarf from Sara) and the Duke of Nottingham rumbles what’s going on…

Director Alessandro Talevi eschews the grandeur of the Elizabethan court and sets this love quadrangle in a dark world of shadows and screens.  Elizabeth keeps a spider in a tank – perhaps this signifies her treatment of Roberto, keeping him as an exotic pet but one that can bite… Later, it emerges that it is she who is the spider, as she careers around in a chariot like a giant robotic arachnid.  Talevi brings surprises to the melodrama.  The bald queen stalking around on mechanical legs while her favourite languishes in prison, caught in scarlet strands – his entanglement in the web of Elizabeth’s emotions.

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Elisabetta (Joyce El-Khoury) Photo: Bill Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent as the tyrannical queen, giving us the regal power of the monarch and the volatile emotions of the woman.  She commands the attention whenever she is on – not just because she is a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  Also strong is Justina Gringyte as the noble, distressed Sara, fighting her feelings for Barry Banks’s robust Roberto.  Roland Wood’s passionate Duke, pleading for the life of his friend is lovely stuff.

The marvellous WNO chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a solemn, hymn-like piece, while the orchestra play Donizetti’s stirring score with verve and beauty.  Madeleine Boyd’s design work owes more to the 19th than the 16th century, with a touch of Vivienne Westwood and Jules Verne thrown in.  It’s all very stylish, a world with its own rules rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

This is a striking, powerful production with a tour de force performance by El-Khoury at its heart.

Majestic.

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Roberto Devereux (Barry Banks) gets caught up in red tape (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

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Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


Dance in the Dark

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama.   It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly.  Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations.  They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.

Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him.  The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.

As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor.  No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role.  As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect.  Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!

As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.

Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.

While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery.  Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.

It’s a banquet for the ears.  The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely.  On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable.  I had a ball!

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When your love-life ‘stalls’ – Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


What a Croc!

PETER PAN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th December, 2018

 

Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre can be counted on to stage the biggest, brightest pantomime year after year and this year is no exception.  Peter Pan is a bit of a weird one, as pantos go, because we expect to see certain key plot points from the J M Barrie play along with traditional panto elements as befit the format.  There is no wedding celebration at the end, for example, because there is no couple of lovers; in fact, Peter and Wendy’s story ends with separation.  Bit of a downer, there, Mr Barrie.

Other than that, it is quite a good fit in this adaptation for the pantomime stage by Alan McHugh and director Michael Harrison.  Big, bold and extravagant, the Hippodrome panto is the jewel in the Qdos crown, but it doesn’t matter how much money you chuck at the stage, it doesn’t matter how big the Wow factor is, if the show doesn’t have any heart.

Rest assured, heart is not in short supply either, thanks to a superlative cast.

Back for his sixth year on the trot, funnyman Matt Slack almost dominates proceedings as Mr Smee.  With Slack, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you’re delighted to get it.  There is nothing slack about his comedic skills: a bit rude, a lot daft, and with exquisite timing.  His impressions are always impressive too.

Union J’s Jaymi Hensley is practically perfect as Peter, with his boyish good looks and angelic pop vocals.  I could listen to him all night.

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Pan-tastic: Jaymi Hensley

Cassie Compton makes an earnest Wendy, while Kellie Gnauck is an appealingly bratty Tinker Bell.  Meera Syal brings local colour to the show in her pantomime debut as the Magical Mermaid and is clearly enjoying herself immensely.  There are old-school variety acts courtesy of the remarkable Timbuktu Tumblers and a gravity-defying balancing act called the Drunken Pirates (Sascha Williams and his assistant Stephanie Nock).

The flying effects are as you’d expect but there are also some surprises.  Most impressive of all is the Crocodile, whose terrifying appearance brings the first act to a close.  Truly, the best I have seen.

The coup though is the casting of not-so little Jimmy Osmond in the role of Captain Hook.  Osmond is the embodiment of entertainment and one of those rare creatures, an American who gets pantomime.  He establishes an excellent rapport with Slack, the straight guy to the latter’s buffoonery, and he treats us with several songs from his brothers’ repertoire, for a rousing finale.

This spectacular affair is a lot of fun.  The comic song, If I Were Not in Neverland, brings the house down, and Slack’s handling of the four youngsters who come up on stage for the sing-along is always a highlight.

One thing I will say: the show could do with a wider range of costumes.  Captain Hook especially deserves an extensive wardrobe, and in the absence of a dame, the Magical Mermaid could do with some more outlandish outfits.

But never mind that.  This is a top-drawer production, an awfully big adventure that is hilarious and magical, demonstrating that what matters most of all is casting.  Get that right and everything else is a bonus.

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Hooked on a feeling: Jimmy Osmond

 

 


Out of the Ashes

LA CENERENTOLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th November, 2018

 

The influence of Mozart, the king of comic opera, is easily apparent in this version of the Cinderella story by Rossini, a worthy successor to the crown.  Rossini’s characters, for all the delight they bring, lack the psychological complexity of Mozart’s but in this colourful, storybook production this matters not one jot.

Director Joan Font keeps the staging simple: a staircase, a huge fireplace that becomes a huge set of palatial doors.  On this grey background, vibrant figures act out the familiar drama (there are a couple of diversions from the norm: the glass slipper is a bracelet, presumably because back in 1817 when the opera premiered, showing bare feet on stage would bring about the apocalypse; the fairy godmother is the Prince’s wise old tutor, disguised as a beggar…)  Joan Guillen’s design dresses the characters in traditional storybook costumes, with exaggerations and some Fauvist colourings: the male chorus all sport blue wigs; the clownish make-up of the comic characters includes painted on blue beards… Font doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to the comedy, and if you spend too long peering up at the surtitles, you might not catch some bit of business that augments the situation, and supports the overall tone of Rossini’s effervescent score.

Tara Erraught is sweetly dowdy – if that’s possible – in the title role, petting her only friends: an infestation of man-sized mice, who serve as stagehands and silent commentators on the proceedings.  Fresh-faced tenor Matteo Macchioni is, well, Charming as the Prince, who for reasons of plot, spends most of the show in disguise as his own manservant, Dandini.  Speaking of whom, Giorgio Caoduro, amid a host of amusing performances, proves the funniest of the lot as the manservant in disguise, camping it up as the Prince.  Fabio Capitanucci all but chews the scenery as bombastic, ostensible villain-of-the-piece, the purple-wigged Don Magnifico.  He and Caoduro excel at the patter, barking out rapid staccato almost to the brink of frenzy.  Rossini, like Mozart before him, makes music sound funny.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Wojtech Gierlach brings gravitas to this bit of froth in the role of the wise and slightly wizardly Alidoro – a figure who owes more than a bit to Sarastro in The Magic Flute,  while Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe have and give and lot of fun as the preening, posturing, bitchy sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, beneath towering pompadours of pink and bright yellow.

The WNO male chorus are in splendid voice, whether singing on-stage or off, but it strikes me at curious that, at the ball, the Prince has only three female guests from whom to select his bride.  The orchestra, under the flawless aegis of Tomas Hanus, deliver every note of Rossini’s frantic music to perfection.  Sometimes it’s so fast it’s as though the characters are in a hurry as they try to express the thoughts and emotions that are pouring out of them like champagne from a newly-popped bottle.

A delight from start to finish, this is a breath-taking feast for the ears with plenty of visual humour to keep the funny-bone tickled.  For me, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the impending pantomime season, as yet again WNO provide world-class entertainment with a production that would make the perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.  It would be a cin-der miss it.

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Giorgio Caoduro and Fabio Capitanucci as Dandini and Don Magnifico (Photo: Jane Hobson)


Grin and Bare It

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th November, 2018

 

The stage adaptation of the hugely successful 1997 film has acquired something of a reputation of ‘a girls’ night out’ principally, I suppose, because the subject matter involves men stripping.  It is about that, but it’s also about much more.  Simon Beaufoy’s script tackles (if that’s the right word!) questions of masculinity in a post-employment economy.  The characters here feel redundant in more than the workplace.  With women bringing home the bacon, even learning to pee standing up, the men despair they no longer have a role in society.

Desperation leads Gaz (Hollyoaks dreamboat Gary Lucy) to swap stealing girders from his former employer for creating a troupe of male strippers for a one-off gig that will raise the dosh for his child support arrears… Lucy has the cockiness, to be sure, but the heart of the show is in his best mate Dave – an excellent Kai Owen.  Andrew Dunn is also great as former manager Gerald, lying to his wife about his employment status; Joe Gill is sweetly vulnerable as depressed, repressed Lomper; James Redmond is a real eye-opener as the cocksure Guy; but it is Louis Emerick’s arthritic Horse who proves the most endearing and the funniest.

There is an assured performance from Fraser Kelly as Gaz’s son Nathan, the child parenting the father, and strong support from Liz Carney as Dave’s wife, Jean.  These two help create some of the show’s most touching moments.

Director Rupert Hill keeps things cracking along at a fair lick.  The iconic moments we expect to see are here, notably the dole queue scene with Donna Summer, and the garden gnomes who trash Gerald’s job interview.  The climactic stripping scene does not disappoint.  It’s exhilarating to see the characters come together and pull it off, and it’s a moment of liberation, of asserting their masculinity.  Stripped of everything, the final image of them naked, backlit in silhouette, proclaims We are men, we are here, and we are dazzling.

The show’s social commentary is still pertinent – these days Gaz and the guys would gather at a food bank – the pathos still works, and it’s still very funny when played by an ensemble of this calibre.

More than a girls’ night out, this is a great night out for everybody.

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Letting it all hang out, James Redmond gives the cast an eyeful

 


Whitewashing Won’t Wash

NOT TODAY’S YESTERDAY

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 23rd October, 2018

 

As usual when I’m reviewing a dance show, I’m somewhat out of my depth; I lack the technical knowledge to appreciate fully an edition of Strictly, let alone a contemporary piece.  But I decide, that’s not important.  The show should work on me without me being able to tell a pirouette from an arabesque.

This is a one-woman piece, combining traditional Eastern moves with modern, Western ones – I can at least tell the difference here – creating a fusion of the two.  It begins with our soloist (Seeta Patel) on a box in front of a reflective surface, moving with jerky, quirky grace; this is a prelude to the story.  A pre-recorded narrator speaks – sometimes the performer lip-syncs, sometimes she supports/illustrates the spoken words with gestures, abstract and concrete.  It’s the story of a land of faraway folk and has the air of a folk tale, and at first, it’s a bit twee.  Were it not for the ominous music, I’d tire of it quickly.  Having painted a picture of this idyllic, if other-worldly, place, the performer introduces a different land, pushing angular forms around to suggest a landscape? A ship? Accompanied by the music of Strauss.  This is the West, sending out explorers to the land of the faraway folk.  At first, gifts are exchanged but it soon turns sour.  As we know from history.

Then comes the show’s most potent image.  The performer pours a curtain of whitewash.  It runs and thickens in front of a suffering figure, obliterating the atrocities of the past. There are some disturbing contortions conveying the torment of the oppressed.  The more she tries to wipe away the whitewash, the more obscured she becomes from sight, until she is reduced to a shadowy figure, distorted, dehumanised, animalistic even.

Donning an elaborate frock made of colourless plastic, she dances to an operatic song that satirises the imperialistic, patriotic rhetoric of the oppressor.  These people should be grateful!  Like the dress, we can see right through it.  It’s comical but it’s also nasty and spot-on and bang up-to-date.    Compare with any of the hateful rantings of the ignoramus Trump.  Fake history is just as bad as fake news.

Seeta Patel is a charismatic presence, expressive and enigmatic in equal measure.  Director-choreographer Lina Limosani keeps the action clearly focussed, augmenting it with a sound design that incorporates sound effects to suggest location, and sound bytes to get the point across.

A provocative, politically pertinent and engaging piece.  I got a lot out of it after all.

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Me and my shadow: the human face behind the whitewash: Seeta Patel