Oh Yes It Is! – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Panto Press Launch

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Yesterday morning, details of the upcoming Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs pantomime by the Birmingham Hippodrome in association with Qdos Entertainment were released as part of a special media launch. Members of the press were invited to meet with the cast, including its newly revealed leading lady, Danielle Hope, the 21-year-old winner of the BBC’s Over the Rainbow series.

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Along with a couple of my fellow First Night Bloggers, I was lucky enough to be invited along to the launch to catch a glimpse of some of the show’s fantastic set and costumes. After a brief introduction in which we were duly reminded that there were only 92 (now 91) shopping days until Christmas, and only 84 days till the opening of the UK’s biggest pantomime, the cast were revealed in all their glittering, camped-up splendour to an audience which was almost as excited as they were.

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Stephanie Beacham swanned around as an impressively imperious Wicked Queen, her icy image only slightly marred when she took five for a coffee, clutching an incongruous paper cup between long glitzy fingers in pointed, elongated gloves. Young talent Danielle Hope looked every bit the innocent, girlish beauty amongst her more experienced colleagues, while true to form, Gok Wan rattled off jokes and wisecracks, primarily about his own tight-fitting, futuristic Man in the Mirror get-up. Said outfit was described by one interviewer as “Storm Trooper meets Dynasty”: Gok’s own interpretation was rather earthier.

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Once the discussion got underway, members of the cast shared their experiences of Birmingham, of pantomimes and of other similar acting roles. Self-dubbed “panto veteran” Matt Slack (set to play the Queen’s henchman Oddjob), will join Gary Wilmot (the Dame), John Partridge (the Prince) and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (Muddles), who between them boast a sizeable list of Birmingham Hippodrome panto credits. For Stephanie Beacham, her role in this show is a familiar one, and something of a return to roots: her first experience of the stage was as the Wicked Queen in a pantomime in Golders Green. More recently, she portrayed Elizabeth I at the Birmingham REP, whom she described as “another wicked queen” of sorts. Although new to pantomime, Danielle Hope’s experience playing Dorothy in the West End has amply prepared her for this fairy-tale part as, perhaps, has her favourite childhood past-time of dressing up as princess Snow White. Meanwhile Gok Wan claimed that he’d only come over to Southside for a Chinese takeaway, and had been rather surprised to find himself sitting in front of an audience looking, in his own words, “gayer than ever”.

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Yet, even for those more accustomed to stage acting and pantomimes particularly, this was an occasion for many “firsts”: it was Matt Slack’s first time in a Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime, Gary Wilmot’s first time in a dress, and Danielle Hope’s first time in the fair city of Birmingham.

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A time for firsts and a time for bests, perhaps? Said Michael Harrison, Managing Director of Qdos Entertainment’s Pantomime Division and Director of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

“I’m thrilled and delighted to have assembled this galaxy of stars for this year’s spectacular Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime. It’s a long time since Snow White was last performed at the theatre and it seems fitting that its return as Britain’s biggest pantomime should feature such an incredible cast. This brand-new production is set to be the most spectacular Birmingham has ever seen.”

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Thursday 19th December 2013 until Sunday 2 February 2014. Tickets are available via the Birmingham Hippodrome website. A relaxed performance, specially adapted for people with learning difficulties, will take place on Thursday 30th January.

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Click here to watch the BBC Midlands Today coverage of the launch.

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New Season Launch – Autumn and Winter at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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After the fabulous free theatre we’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks across Birmingham’s city centre, the summer may finally be over, but the fun is far from it! The Birmingham Hippodrome has just announced a new season packed full of all sorts of exciting shows to brighten up the cold, dark winter days!

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18389_sFrom October through to Spring next year, you’ll be able to enjoy a range of smash-hit musicals, National Theatre shows on tour, contemporary dance, world-class opera and ballet from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Welsh National Opera, and of course, the return of the world’s biggest pantomime this Christmas.

The new season kicks off next month with the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, E=MC² and Tombeaux (3-5 October) and later The Sleeping Beauty, (8-12 October) followed by the National Theatre’s War Horse (16 October – 9 November). If you want to get yourself some War Horse tickets, act fast, since the show is almost sold out already!

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Alongside the War Horse run, two additional special events will be taking place: Only Remembered (Friday 8th November), a concert featuring live readings from the original War Horse novel by its author Michael Morpurgo and music from John Tams and Barry Coope, and a War Horse-themed sleepover (Friday 25th October) that will see the Patrick Centre transformed into World War I-style trenches.

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Towards the end of the month, there will be more opportunities to experience free outdoor shows in Birmingham. Make sure you wrap up warm for Illuminate! (25-27 October) a three-day light spectacular featuring interactive street projections from Shanghai, dance performances and The Lanterns of Terracotta Warriors, an extraordinary exhibition originally created for the Beijing Olympics.

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Throughout November, the Welsh National Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (12 & 16 November) and Gaetano Donizetti’s new Tudors series: Anna Bolena (13 November), Maria Stuarda (14 November) and Roberto Devereux (15 November). 

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As Christmas approaches, the Hippodrome will be helping you to get into the festive spirit with a Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (22 November – 12 December), as well as its excellent, all-star pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (19 December – 2 February). This year’s panto will star Gok Wan, Stephanie Beacham, Gary Wilmot, John Partridge and winner of the BBC’s Over the Rainbow series Danielle Hope.

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February is a great month to catch some ballet at the Hippodrome, with two more productions from the Birmingham Royal Ballet (Three of a Kind from 19-22 February and The Prince of the Pagodas from 25 February – 1 March), as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (5-15 February).

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Meanwhile, March is the month for music, with three WNO operas and two exciting musicals.  The Welsh National Opera will present Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (4 & 8 March) as well as two brand new productions, Manon Lescaut (5 & 7 March) and Boulevard Solitude (6 March). From 11-15 March, award-winning producers Music & Lyrics will be presenting their take on Fiddler on the Roof, starring Paul Michael Glaser and, towards the end of the month, the theatre’s stage will be flooded with 12,000 litres of water every night as part of its Singin’ in the Rain performances (18 March – 5 April), starring Maxwell Caulfield and Faye Tozer.

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In April, Wet, Wet, Wet frontman Marti Pellow will star in Evita (8-19 April), while a brand new musical based on the classic TV series Happy Days will star Sugababes’ Heidi Range (22-26 April). The Happy Days musical is written by the series’ creator Gary Marshall, with creative consultancy from Henry Winkler, TV’s original “Fonz”.

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May sees the return of the biennial International Dance Fest Birmingham, co-produced by the Hippodrome and DanceXchange. The festival will kick off with Sideways Rain (29-30 April) by Genevan contemporary dance company Alias, and will also include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M!longa  (23-24 May), international hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention (20-21 May), a new adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies by Matthew Bourne (14-17 May) and a performance from acclaimed ballerina Sylvie Guillem in 6,000 Miles Away (6-7 May). Bourne’s new production will feature young New Adventures dancers from the West Midlands as part of efforts to inspire a new generation to get involved in dance. 

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As Spring leads on into summer, the National Theatre‘s five-star comedy feast, One Man, Two Guv’nors will arrive in Birmingham (26-31 May), providing an excellent opportunity to catch this highly-praised production if you missed it in London. One Man, Two Guv’nors is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, reimagined in 1960s Brighton by Richard Bean.

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So it comes full circle back to summer. Next summer’s big musical show will be Wicked (9 July – 6 September). It may seem a long way to plan ahead, but tickets for Wicked are already being snapped up by audiences. In September, the Hippodrome will also be showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Check back here for details about when tickets go on sale.

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To book tickets and for more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Happy watching!

Theatre Matters!

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My Theatre Matters! is a campaign run jointly by Equity, The Stage and TMA, designed to challenge the threats of increasing budget cuts and marginalisation currently faced by theatres and other arts organisations across the country. The campaign celebrates the important role played by theatre in the community, and provides artists and audiences with a way of expressing what theatre means to them.

This month, in association with Classic FM, My Theatre Matters! is searching for the UK’s most welcoming theatre. Between now and 30th September, you have the chance to choose and vote for the theatre that makes you feel most at home. The winner will then be announced at the Guildhall in London on Sunday 20th October as part of the UK Theatre Awards, the only nationwide awards honouring creative excellence and outstanding achievement throughout Britain, both on and off stage. Over 220 theatres are participating, and with such competition, the Birmingham Hippodrome would really love to have your vote!

In the interests of fairness, voting will take into account the relative sizes of different theatres. In order to find the winner, the number of votes for a theatre will be divided by its seating capacity. Of course, with a lot of seats to fill, this means that the Hippodrome will need plenty of votes to be in with a chance of winning!

The deadline for voting is midnight on Monday 30th September. Click here to cast your vote! You can also click here to add your photo and show your support for the campaign.

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4 Squares Weekender – Birmingham Celebrates Art and Culture

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There are honestly few sights I’ve seen more cheering than the enormous crowds that turned out for the 4 Squares arts festival in Birmingham last weekend. Even if the crazy-long queues for the library meant that I couldn’t get into the building to take a look around myself (don’t worry, I’ll be back), I couldn’t help but feel thrilled to see so many people getting so excited about a library – and more generally, across the city centre, to see so many people actively engaging with the arts. I’ve since been told that an estimated 95,000 people were there this weekend, with well over half of those having made a special journey for the event. It’s not a surprise at all. As Christopher Barron, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, said:

“4 Squares Weekender proved, as if it were needed, the appetite of Birmingham audiences for high quality, spectacular and accessible cultural experiences.”

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Just as exciting as the size and scale of this event, though, was its scope. With almost every major arts organisation in the city offering some kind of contribution, it’s little wonder that it attracted crowds every bit as diverse as its performances. The wonderful thing about putting everything together in one place, of course, is that people were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and try out something new. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a range of arts and audiences manage to be so wholly integrated. Where else but here could you see old men and women, toddlers and teenagers of all races enjoying outdoor opera side-by-side and equally as much? Where else would you find adult men actively volunteering to participate in a ballet demonstration? Where else could you see the disparate stories of a rich-man turned homeless and a bulimic young woman effortlessly combined into a single fairy tale, told straight to the faces of a tiny audience packed into a caravan, decorated simultaneously as both a food bank and an allotment?

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Without wittering on any further, then, I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the things that I managed to see – though I’m afraid there was plenty that I didn’t. Obviously I’m hinting here that I’d like the chance to see the rest again – come on, Birmingham!

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Friday night was the official festival launch and, having arrived a little early for the press reception in advance of the show, I headed up to Victoria Square to take a look at the huge crane and moveable stage that would form part of the evening’s performance of As the World Tipped. Arriving there, I unexpectedly came across performance that had already started: a brilliant little group called Trio Damba, made up of three members of Birmingham band, The Destroyers, with Louis Robinson at the helm. According to the programme, their musical style is an unusual blend of “genres as diverse as Klezma, Hot Club, Tango, Country and Western and Fraggle Rock”. Later that weekend, I was to see them again with support from additional musicians.

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The evening’s main event, As the World Tipped, was a little slow in starting. Sound effects announcing the beginning of the show were started up a good twenty minutes before anything actually happened, and there were other areas of the show that would have benefitted from some cutting down (the list of endangered species, for example, and the drawn-out ending). Yet the action and stunts were faultless and spectacular – this was definitely a way to get things started with a bang, and the crowds loved it.

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I started Saturday with a ceilidh. There are few ways I’d rather spend my Saturday afternoons, given the choice. I had one at my wedding recently, and I’m rather of the opinion that mass outdoor dances should be implemented as a regular thing in cities every weekend. The novelty would never wear off, and sedentary arty types like me would all be an awful lot fitter as a result. This was an unusual sort of ceilidh in that it was quite stripped back to ensure that the little ones could get the most out of it. The Burdock Ceilidh Band even invented their own new dance called War and Peace (the abridged version), which seemed to mainly involve pulling silly faces at the people in the line facing your own. Everyone who was there had great fun, 25708_swhether or not they joined in themselves. After this, I headed out towards the Town Hall to catch a brief ballet show, but with time to spare, I stopped off at the stage in Chamberlain Square to pick up some dance moves from the mac’s Move Me workshop.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Presents…, it transpired, was less a ballet performance and more an insight into the rehearsal process and how a ballet production is put together, run by Assistant Director Marion Tait, Ballerina Callie Roberts and Pianist Matthew Drury. Callie is currently preparing to play the wicked fairy Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, which will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 8-12th October. Members of the audience were asked to stand in for the King, Queen and Catalabutte, the master-of-ceremonies who forgets to invite Carabosse. It was really fascinating to get a glimpse into this process, to see that even the most 300accomplished of performers have lots to learn before they get up in front of an audience.

After this, I headed back to Centenary Square for the Secret Drama at 2pm, with enough time to catch a little of three different performances. At the Musical PicnicLouis Robinson and Friends finished off a set, while over towards the Paradise Forum, colourfully costumed dancers showed off their moves in the Hooray for Bollywood! show. Meanwhile, The Russians Are Coming…. took place in the new library’s open amphitheatre, featuring fantastic Birmingham Opera Company baritone Byron Jackson performing four songs involving personifications of Death, accompanied by Sergey Rybin on piano.

The Secret Drama was a wordless, energetic, five-minute show, announced by a gong right behind me, which almost made me jump out of my skin! The performance involved fire engine ladders, abseiling, a skateboard, a police car and a giant key. What was it about? Well, it wouldn’t be a secret if I told you now, would it?

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Following this, the CBSO Cello Ensemble assembled at the Musical Picnic stage to perform Notelets, a family-friendly show that got little ones joining in with familiar songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” and the theme tune from In the Night Garden. Simultaneously, Ex Cathedra entered the amphitheatre for a gorgeous rendition of a series of songs inspired by nature, rounded off with an a capella version of “Singin’ in the Rain” – fortunately not actually in the rain. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find the promised CBSO Wind Ensemble, but there was more than enough to keep me occupied until I went off to queue up for my first Eat! experience.

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Eat! is a series of four intimate, 15-minute dramas, performed inside gutted and redecorated caravans to tiny audiences of 15. Each vignette is based on true stories gathered from interviews and online conversations with local people conducted in advance by the REP. Naturally, the caravans filled up quickly, so to be in with a chance of seeing any of the shows, one had to arrive a good quarter of an hour or so before the start. The first I saw remained my favourite of them all. This was the show I mention above, telling the stories of a fairy tale princess who lived with a wise old man (or an overweight teenager who lived with her grandfather), and a knight in shining armour who became bewitched by a magic potion (or a rich, smart-suited guy who became an alcoholic after being left by his wife).

800x600.fitdownSadly, this was the last thing I got chance to see on Saturday, but I’m told by the good authority that is the Twittersphere that Musical Youth were superb.

Sunday kicked off with a journey to the East through musical storytelling from Michael Loader at the musical picnic stand, enjoyed by children and grown-ups alike. This was followed by Metropolitan Brass, a brass-five piece who played familiar, family-friendly tunes including the themes from The Simpsons, Harry Potter and The Pink Panther.

My second Eat! experience, also in Centenary Square, was much more lively and upbeat than the first. This caravan combined singing, beatboxing and heightened theatricals to run through a series of food-related snapshots, rather than one or two full stories. To fit with the show’s “theatre” theme, the inside was decorated in rich red and gold colours, with heavy curtains surrounded by an ornate arch. I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to all these beautiful sets now that it’s all over – I hope that the company at least get to extend their tour.

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After this, I aimed for the Victoria Square Eat! show, but failed to make it on time, so I headed over to Oozells Square to check out Clayground Collective‘s giant clay city and the other Eat! show. Before I’d gone very far, however, I encountered a crowd in the middle of the ICC, surrounding a band which turned out to be the energetic and experimental Perhaps Contraption. The volume level in the corridor soon led to a collective decision to take the show outside, and I followed them out to listen to a couple of songs.

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Conscious of time however, I wasn’t able to stick around for too long if I wanted to catch the next caravan perfomance, so I pressed on, arriving with just enough time to listen to a rendition of Jessie J’s “Money” by the Occasional Brass Band just outside the square.

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The Clayground Collective activity was something beautiful to see, with hordes of children gathered round to unleash their creativity. The “war” themed Eat! production was beautiful too, but in a very different, much more poignant way. The show told a haunting wartime tale of suffering, starvation and survival against the odds, inside a caravan kitted-out with seats made of books and walls plastered with printed pages. “There are friends, and there is food,” the story began, “but food is your best friend.” This caravan, too, suggested one possible answer to the question of what would happen to the sets next – it would be lovely to see this bookish set as a permanent installation in or around the new library….

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Back in Centenary Square, the CBSO String Quartet were due to start at the same time – and in the same place, it turned out – as a repeat of the Birmingham Opera Company‘s performance from the day before.  Unable to find the string quartet, I caught a little of the CBSO Cello Ensemble and The Russians Are Coming… before settling down at the musical picnic to listen to Soweto Kinch‘s bizarre blend of jazz and hip hop. Soweto free-styled impressively, using words thrown at him by the audience to go with each of the letter in “music”. The “i” was for “intellectual”, and with all the wit and Latin words being rattled off here, it seemed apt enough. Soweto Kinch will be performing his show, The Legend of Mike Smith at the Birmingham REP from 12-28 September – I’m definitely going to try to catch it there!

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Before seeing the final Eat! production in Victoria Square, there was time at this point to enjoy some impressive circus skills displays from NoFit State, and some soul and motown classics from the Brothers of Soul and Divas of Soul in The Magic of Old Skool Classics.

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The final Eat! show followed a wedding theme, telling the story of a woman who “live[d] to eat“, and describing the food at her weddings to multiple husbands from around the world. Despite her larger-than-life cheeriness, however, there was a subtle, half-hidden sadness in the tale: our protagonist, we learn, is a recovered anorexic, with a secret sense of loss clouding her past.

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Last but not least was Tippa Irie, reggae legend taking over the Simmer Down stage outside the Town Hall. A troop of loyal supporters swarmed round for his set, willing to stick it out even when the heavens opened above them.

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4 Squares Weekender, I think, perfectly represented the West Midlands at it’s best, and perhaps for the first time, I felt truly proud to be a part of it. As Peter Knott, Director of Arts Council England, put it:

“4 Squares Weekender was an iconic opportunity for Birmingham to welcome visitors and locals alike, showing off the world class cultural offer in the City and heralding a new way of working which places the Library at the heart of this community.”

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Suddenly, it seems like a thoroughly exciting time to be in Birmingham and the surrounding area, and I join with Christopher Barron in hoping that “the launch of the new Library, the re-opening of The REP and 4 Squares Weekender are not the end of the story.”

4 Squares Weekender – Free Theatre to Launch the New Library of Birmingham

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If you’ve been following the news this week, you may well have spotted that the new Library of Birmingham was opened on Tuesday by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot by the Taliban for championing girls’ rights to education.

Speaking on the day, Malala described books as weapons for beating terrorism, claiming that “the only way to global peace is reading, knowledge and education”. With characteristic eloquence, she went on to explain that,

“Books are precious. Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future. Some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe. […] It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul. A city without a library is like a graveyard.”

Malala also spoke about the importance of Birmingham as a city, describing it as “the beating heart of England“.

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Following on from this official launch, a weekend of free live performance across Birmingham City Centre will celebrate the library’s opening, beginning at 9.30pm tomorrow with As the World Tipped, a spectacular, aerial outdoor show by Wired Aerial Theatre, set on a huge 12 metre screen against the night sky. Watch this space for updates: I’ll be attending and reporting back on both the show and the media launch beforehand. If you can’t make it tomorrow, the performance will be repeated at 9pm on Saturday.

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Across Saturday and Sunday, you’ll be able to see a diverse range of shows taking place across Birmingham’s Oozells, Centenary, Chamberlain and Victoria Squares, with something for all ages to enjoy. In the words of Peter Knott, Regional Director of Arts Council England, 4 Squares Weekender is, “a spectacular weekend to celebrate arts and culture”, offering “something to suit all tastes”.

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In Oozells Square and Brindleyplace, there’ll be a series of performances and activities organised by mac Birmingham. Inside Ikon’s galleries, there will be music by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as dance from Sampad and contemporary circus by Pif-Paf. Outside, you can take part in family-friendly activities, helping to build a giant city out of clay.

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A musical picnic will take place in Centenary Square, courtesy of Town Hall Symphony Hall, and featuring performances from Birmingham-based saxophonist Soweto Kinch. Meanwhile, inside four converted caravans, the Birmingham REP will be providing impromptu acting and storytelling, and inside the new library itself, there’ll be music from Ex Cathedra and the Birmingham Opera Company.

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TippaIrie2013In Victoria Square, NoFit State Circus will be providing performance and circus skills taster workshops. If you missed them at Summer in Southside, this is a great chance to catch up with their incredible acrobatics, as well as to take part and learn some skills yourself!

Finally, in Chamberlain Square, The Drum’s Simmer Down stage will be hosting a range of reggae, ska, bhangra, sufi and hip-hop music, including performances from Tippa Irie and Musical Youth. Inside the Town Hall, you’ll be able to see dance performances from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and DanceXchange, including opportunities to take part, while the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be presenting a full day of film courtesy of Flatpack Festival.

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Said Stuart Griffiths, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Hippodrome, “”Birmingham’s arts organisations offer some of the most vibrant and exciting programmes in the country. We are delighted to come together to welcome the new Library of Birmingham at this incredibly exciting time for our city.”

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If you’re attending, don’t forget to tell us about your experiences on Twitter, using the hashtag #bham4sq. As with the Summer in Southside festival, I’ll be hanging around over both days, so check back here if you’re curious about anything you don’t manage to attend.

Hope to see you there!

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