Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

Nice Time

BARBARA NICE’S RAFFLE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 14th October, 2018

 

Appearing as part of the Birmingham Comedy Festival, ‘housewife, mother of five, and avid reader of Take A Break’, Mrs Barbara Nice brings with her a microphone, a manually-operated tombola and a bag-for-life full of prizes.  “We’ll do the raffle in the second half; the first half’s all admin.”

By admin, she means audience participation – two words guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of any British theatregoer.  But on this occasion, we need have no fear.  Such is Mrs Nice’s approach, we join in without worrying about it.  Her questions might call for a show of hands, a grunt, a nudge of our neighbour, and so on, as response.  At any moment, she might drop in the chorus of a popular song and we all engage in some impromptu community singing, whether it’s A Windmill in Old Amsterdam, or the jingles for Cadbury’s chocolate.  En masse, we mime that we are taking part in the Winter Olympics, going for gold in the curling.

It sounds daft.  It is daft.  But we don’t feel daft.  We’re having the time of our lives.

Mrs Nice has a way of bonding us all.  Her daftness democratises us.  Between self-deprecating remarks (the ravages of childbirth on her body, for example) she champions ‘ordinary’ and ‘working class’ people – and it’s about time somebody did, and thanks us repeatedly for coming out to see a live show, for breaking our routines.  We are all in it together – and this time, those words actually mean something.

The raffle fills the second half, a surprisingly thrilling ritual in which we are deeply invested – we’ve been issued a free ticket on admission to the show.  Mrs Nice parades half a dozen prizes that arouse our acquisitiveness instantly.  I have my heart set on a tin of marrowfat peas, and am gutted when someone else claims the bottle of Dettol…  Each winner comes down, Price is Right style, while music blares, and dances with our hostess.  There is no embarrassment here, and we’re all celebrating the good fortune of the chosen ones.  I come away empty-handed, alas, but my heart is full of joy.

This is what John McGrath, long ago, would call ‘A Good Night Out’, hearkening back to working-men’s clubs and variety shows.  It’s character comedy – Mrs Nice is the creation of actor Janice Connolly – a worthy successor to the likes of Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton.

The evening is rounded off with the entire audience coming onto the stage for a frankly terrifying game of What’s The Time Mister Wolf?  It’s a delicious moment and Mrs Nice has proved her point: it is better to get out and get involved with people.  This hilarious show does more for the audience’s mental health and well-being than any worthy self-help book.

Furthermore, it reminds us of the fun and power of a live show, something we can lose sight of as we crook our necks over our phones, barely interacting with the world around us.

A wonderful, wonderful night.

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Girl Powers

MATILDA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 5th July, 2018

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s most successful production ever comes to Birmingham for the summer, making itself at home in the Hippodrome, just 20-odd miles from its point of origin in Stratford upon Avon.  It’s been a few years since I last saw it and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be reminded of its brilliance.

Based on one of Roald Dahl’s novels for children, it contains a host of grotesque characters – gifts for any actor!  – monstrous, unreasonable adults in contrast with our clear-thinking, upright young heroine.  Matilda’s parents (Sebastian Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill) are cruel in their selfishness and neglect of the little girl they don’t know how to handle; Torkia comes into his own with a paeon to television to open the second act, while Thornhill gets to demonstrate her moves with some wild ballroom dancing, accompanied by a snake-hipped Matt Gillett as Rudolpho, her instructor – it’s like Strictly on too much sugar.  The most grotesque of them all is, of course, sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, in a show-stealing performance by Craige Els.  It’s a delicious role, and Els makes a meal of it.

They’re not all horrible.  Matilda finds succour from her friendly neighbourhood librarian, the attentive Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) and especially from her teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms).  Thoms brings the right amount of mousiness to the part as Miss Honey develops a backbone, without being insipid or overly sentimental.

But the night belongs to the children.  No one elicits quality performances from young actors like the RSC, and this current troupe keep the bar held high.  Among the class, some stand out (although they are all disciplined, committed, and talented!): Dylan Hughes’s cake-guzzling Bruce, Madeline Gilby’s spirited Lavender…  And, above all, a breathtakingly commanding performance from Lara Cohen in the title role, often holding the stage on her own.  It’s incredible – with Cohen’s skills almost matching her character’s superpowers (Matilda is a kind of benevolent Carrie!)

Dennis Kelly’s book is redolent with Roald Dahl fun and nastiness, while Tim Minchin’s score is charming and clever, with plenty of good tunes – my favourite being the wistfully bittersweet When I Grow Up, joyfully presented on playground swings.  Director Matthew Warchus elicits broad playing from his colourful cast.  This is larger-than-life stuff, the stuff, indeed, of storybooks, but Matilda has no problem working her magic on young and old audience members alike.

29-RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Lara Cohen (Matilda). Photo Manuel Harlan.

One for the books: Lara Cohen as Matilda (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Breaking the Ice

TITANIC – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 4th June, 2018

 

This story about belief in the infallibility of technology is delayed by a technical hitch, sort of foreshadowing what is to befall the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship – although there can’t be a soul in the house who doesn’t know the story; it is a disaster branded in the public imagination and therefore, any retelling is flooded with dramatic irony.  The audience knows what’s coming but the crew and passengers do not, and so it is the job of the script to try to engage us with the lives of individuals before the main event disrupts everything.  And here – and only here – is where this musical adaptation is scuppered.  It’s a safe bet that the women (and children) are likely to survive; their husbands, beaux, fathers etc, not so much.  There are too many characters and too little time for us to be manipulated into caring about any of them very much, given that we know they have a date with an iceberg, and there is very little opportunity for characters to develop and endear them to us.  Lines like “I believe this will be my final voyage” clang like dropped anchors.

But it’s very well presented.  David Woodhead’s riveted steel proscenium frames a simple set with an upper and lower deck and a movable set of stairs, while his fabulous Edwardian costumes evoke the sense of period.  Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are Sondheimesque in tone and effect (I mean that as a compliment, of course), giving the cast, individuals and chorus alike, plenty of opportunity to belt their hearts out.  Director Thom Southerland tackles the wrecking of the ship with simple, stylised staging, enough to tease the imagination – we don’t even see the lifeboats, let alone the iceberg, but where the show has greatest impact is where the survivors stand before a role call of all those who perished, the lettering too small to be read, because those lost souls are, after all, unknowable.

Among the large cast several stand-out performances arise: Simon Green’s arrogant, hubristic J Bruce Ismay; Greg Costiglioni’s passionate Mr Andrews; Claire Machin’s social-climbing Alice; Lewis Cornay’s appealing Bell Boy and bandleader; and the mighty Niall Sheehy as Fred the boilerman.  Sheehy is set up as the hero of the piece and sings like one – but of course, poor Fred is no superman, and his sacrifice is almost understated.

Others have their moments: Judith Street and Dudley Rogers as the elderly Mr and Mrs Straus have a touching scene, deciding to face their fates together; Captain Smith (Philip Rham), Mr Ismay and Mr Andrews have a great scene in which they lash out, each blaming the others for the shipwreck.  A trio of girls, introduced as the Three Kates, show promise but only one (Victoria Serra) gets any real stage time – and makes the most of it.

By the end, I’m wondering if musical theatre was the way to go.  Perhaps a docu-drama style would have been more appropriate in bringing home the scale of the enterprise and the enormity of its loss.  And should a disaster – any disaster – be the basis of a piece of entertainment?  As it is, this Titanic is great on the ears, but leaves the heartstrings of this reviewer unplucked.

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Niall Sheehy’s Fred before it all goes belly-up (Photo: Scott Rylander)


Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan.  Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding.  This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation.  And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.

Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge.  He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan.  Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long.  In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.

Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting.  Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.

It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders.  An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.

Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient.  Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone.  It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.

Superb.

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Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Take This

THE BAND

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st May, 2018

 

Regular readers will know of my aversion to jukebox musicals and so it is with some trepidation that I approach this production.  An out-and-proud Take That fan from way back, I had seen some of the auditions for the titular band in a BBC talent programme, and that wasn’t enough to put me off!

Not, as the woman behind me expected, the story of Take That, this is instead the tale of Rachel and her schoolfriends.  The Band, a Take-Thattish quintet of handsome lads, form the soundtrack to their lives, and encapsulate their hopes and dreams.  Teen Rachel (Faye Christall) cranks up their music to drown out her parents’ quarrels and escape her problems – boy band as metaphor for heroin, perhaps!  When her best mate Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks) wins concert tickets, the group of girls set off on an adventure that changes their young lives.  The other members are sporty Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), promiscuous extrovert Heather (Katy Clayton) and swotty Zoe (Lauren Jacobs).  We realise the show’s title refers not only to the omnipresent boyband but also to the rubber bracelets on which the girls swear undying friendship, in a kind of Blood Brothers move.

The boy band work as a kind of dispassionate Greek chorus, hardly ever off apart from costume changes – the songs don’t necessarily relate to the action or the characters – and it’s like a play with songs, until the characters start singing too and we’re launched back into musical theatre territory, although, even then, they sing because they want to, rather than to express emotion or character or to further the plot.  And it doesn’t matter.  The musical numbers are spectacularly staged – production values are high, indeed.  Relight My Fire, for example, turns the last bus home into a chariot pulled by the band in Greek helmets, while jets of flame leap from the footlights…

The story jumps 25 years and forty-something Rachel has won a competition to see the band’s reunion gig in Prague.  A reunion is on the cards and there is much humour and more than a little poignancy with the regard to the passage of time and the way life turns out.  Rachel Lumberg is the keystone of the story as grown-up Rachel – with her partner Jeff (Martin Miller) the script takes a John Godber turn, with the relationship strife and the planned trip abroad.  Jayne McKenna and Emily Joyce are good fun as the grown-up Zoe and Heather respectively, but it is the once-sporty Claire who steals the show and our hearts in a lovely portrayal by Alison Fitzjohn.  Andy Williams (not that one) crops up again and again in a range of roles, each of them humorous in an economical, throwaway style that demonstrates his versatility and comic timing.

Tim Firth’s script channels Victoria Wood with its down-to-earth North-Western bathos, and Willy Russell in its female empowerment.  There are plenty of laughs, more than a smattering of wit and a touching denouement that has me wiping my eye.

And the boyband?  Wow.  Selected for their vocal abilities, they also have to dance their socks (and in some cases their tops) off, in a dazzling and energetic display.  Kim Gavin’s choreography evokes the pop videos of Take That and the boys (AJ, Nick, Curtis, Yazdan and Sario) seem tireless in their efforts.  Very impressive.

Kim Gavin also directs, along with Jack Ryder, and they get the pace and feel of the piece just right, keeping us on the right side of sentimentality and teasing us with just enough nostalgia to set the scene while allowing this new story to have legs of its own.  This charming, warm-hearted piece blends down-to-earth humour with spectacular staging and it all fits together beautifully for a show you’ll Never Forget.

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The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)

 


Twisted but not Bitter

THE TWISTED TALE OF HANSEL AND GRETEL

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th April, 2018

 

In the first of a planned series of collaborations, Birmingham Hippodrome, Open Theatre Company and Metro-Boulot-Dodo stage this new production to bring learning disabled performers to the fore, during the creative process and the performance.  This is perhaps the biggest ‘twist’ on offer, although the show has a few pleasant surprises in its retelling of the Brothers Grimm story.

At the helm is our Storyteller (Nicky Priest) bombastic, condescending and all the funnier because of it.  He bows to the will of the cast when they demand the story needs ‘jazzing up’ and we watch in delight as things slip out of his control and he descends into neurosis.  Priest is superb, the lynchpin of the performance, holding things together.  He is assisted by Mockingbird (Charles Craggs) whose musical accompaniment and sound effects underscore the action.  Mockingbird is a subversive presence, undermining the Storyteller, but he is a vital cog in the show’s machinery, providing vocalisations that allow the actors to focus on choreographed movements.

Director Esther Simpson enables the cast to play to their strengths.  Her script gives most of the dialogue to the Storyteller and Mockingbird so that lines spoken by other characters comes across as punchlines and make us laugh.  It’s a very physical performance style, as cartoon-like, the characters enact the events of the old tale.  They’re all rather adept at this but Jake Jervis, appearing as the evil Stepmother and later as the Witch, is delightfully funny.  Luke Greenwood is charming as the Dad and a Chef (yes, there’s a Chef in it), while Kimisha Lewis makes for a feisty Gretel, fighting against the stereotypical behaviour the story expects of her.  Rishard Beckett is an expressive, energetic Hansel, but it is Vicki Taylor’s deadpan Duck who steals the show (yes, there’s a duck in it) – a running joke, or rather, a waddling one – holding up placards as speech balloons with immaculate timing.

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Bake-off! Jake Jarvis as the Witch (Photo: Kate Green)

Kate Unwin’s costumes are like children’s drawings of the characters.  Her set of building blocks that are stacked up and reconfigured to represent the family home and the gingerbread house, add to the storybook-nursery feel, but setting them up and taking them down takes a lot of time and interrupts the otherwise fast-paced action.

On the whole, this is an amusing and charming way to spend an hour or so.  The back-and-forth between the Storyteller and the Mockingbird (excellently delivered though it is) could do with trimming to keep the pace punchy but, as the production embarks on a tour, I’m sure things will tighten up as they go.

Fun for all the family, this is an age-old story of child poverty, neglect and abuse – but don’t let that put you off!

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By the book: Luke Greenwood, Kimisha Lewis, Rishard Bennett, Jake Jarvis and Nicky Priest (Photo: Kate Green)

 


Juan to Watch

DON GIOVANNI

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th March, 2018

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and this time they’ve brought my favourite opera, Mozart’s masterly take on the Don Juan legend.  The setting is dark: huge slabs hold doorways (which are put to comic use) but also bear reliefs, friezes depicting human figures in a variety of poses.  Are they souls in torment, and a foretaste of what awaits this dissoluto when he is punito?  Or are they souls in love – which, as the opera demonstrates (in case we didn’t know already) brings its own kind of torment?  These huge pieces, further adorned with statuary, speak of a dominant power, of a ruling class imposing its will on the environs.  Which is what Don Giovanni does in spades, of course, under the guise of generosity and general benevolence.  In these days of sexual harassment cases brought against those (men) who abuse their positions of power, the opera takes on a sharp and contemporary relevance, although I doubt the likes of Weinstein will face his comeuppance via supernatural means!

Against this darkness and walls closing in and moving back, plays out the drama and the comedy of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.  Melodrama is countered with wit, high emotion with low, physical gags.  Mozart’s music ties all the mood swings together so we are aware of the contrasts but don’t see the join, and this revival of John Caird’s production serves all aspects, every change of tone, very well.

Gavan Ring’s swaggering Giovanni certainly looks the part and uses his baritone well for seductive decoration.  It’s a pity his voice comes across as somewhat underpowered when singing against the full orchestra: the champagne aria is a bit of a damp squib, alas, whereas La Ci Darem is delicious.  His serenade of Elvira’s maid is ‘accompanied’ by a mysterious, cowled figure, supposedly on the mandolin, thereby aligning Giovanni with the supernatural forces that crop up throughout.  This is the one production choice I query.  If Giovanni is in league with these forces and therefore doing the devil’s work, it doesn’t quite gel with his damnation, brought about by the spirit of the man he murders in the opening scene… Oh well.  I’m not going to let it ruin my night.

David Stout’s Leporello is instantly likeable.  He has the cockiness, the cheekiness and the grovelling down pat, and plays the comedy to the hilt.  Meeta Raval’s Donna Anna provides most of the high drama, while Elizabeth Watts’s Elvira’s melodramatic turn also contributes to the laughs.  Watts is arguably the best actor of this impressive ensemble; her wide-eyed Elvira, like the opera as a whole, balances the dramatic with the comic.  She is a drama queen.  Gareth Brynmor John gives us a solid hothead in his Masetto, while Katie Bray is sweet, funny and charming as his wayward fiancée, Zerlina.  Miklos Sebestyen’s Commendatore is suitably imposing but, for me, best voice of the evening comes out of Benjamin Hulett’s dashing Ottavio.  His tenor soars over the orchestra; his Ottavio is upright, moral and heroic, and not the wet lettuce he is sometimes portrayed as.

The orchestra is in excellent fettle under the baton of James Southall and although the fabulous WNO chorus has little to do, they make an impression with some country dancing at Zerlina’s wedding.

The world is a dark place, the production tells us, and those in charge will seek to exploit us.  Nevertheless, life is to be enjoyed, despite tyrants, despite the tyrannies of love.  At the end, the characters seem unable to embrace life’s pleasures: Anna defers her marriage to Ottavio – who agrees to it! – Elvira heads for a convent – and Leporello seeks out further servitude in a new master.  With Giovanni out of the picture, their lives have lost purpose.  We must allow ourselves a little dissolution, it seems, in order to be happy and fulfilled!

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Leporello showing Donna Elvira Russell Brand’s biography – Elizabeth Watts and David Stout (Photo: Richard Hubert Smth)