Wicked Young Writers Meet Emerald City Stars at the Library of Birmingham

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To coincide with the Wicked UK run at the theatre this summer, the Birmingham Hippodrome in association with The Library of Birmingham offered an exciting opportunity for young writers across the city to show off their storytelling talents and cast a spell over competition judges, with extra special prizes awarded to the most magical tale-tellers.

Throughout June and July, budding writers aged up to 18 submitted their stories, and today, the winners of the Wicked Young Writers competition – Lauren Bull and William Bezzant – arrived at The Library of Birmingham to claim the first part of their prize – an exclusive meeting with cast members from the Wicked UK tour! Huge congrats to both Lauren and William, who will also be treated to a night out at the theatre this evening with complimentary tickets to see the show!

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While there, the cast members also chanced to meet one of the library’s avian protectors – a hawk who helps keep pesky seagulls and pigeons away from the towering building.

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The Frozen Scream – A New Play by Sarah Waters & Christopher Green

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After their hugely successful collaboration on a recent UK tour of Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat, the Birmingham Hippodrome and Wales Millenium Centre are once again teaming up, this time to present a chilling murder mystery play to be shown in the depths of winter 2014-15. Based on a largely forgotten novel by English writer CC Gilbert, The Frozen Scream has now been adapted for the stage by acclaimed novelist Sarah Waters and Olivier Award-winning writer and performer Christopher Green.

First published in 1928, The Frozen Scream was initially well-received, but its popularity began to decline after a series of mysterious deaths resulted in a superstitious belief that the book was cursed. It tells the story of a group of friends who find themselves stranded in an abandoned lodge after setting off for a costume ball in the middle of a snowstorm. There, they attempt to entertain themselves with terrible tales of Jack Frost, until their fantastic fictions seem to turn into horrifying reality. According to ccgilbert.net, it became known for its “brooding, chilling, vision of bleak spookiness, occasional bursts of ultra-violence and eccentric characters”.

149667884_165635dd95_mThe same year, CC Gilbert also caused something of a stir when she was “outed” as female by the radical Ladies’ League, who accused her of “withholding her sex to the detriment of all femalekind”. The fact that she had opted not to reveal her sex perhaps seemed a step backwards to many women at the time, particularly as The Frozen Scream was published in the same year as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack.

Known for her evocative historical fiction, Sarah Waters is a fantastic candidate to rekindle interest in this lost tale. Her best-selling books include Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, The Little Stranger, Affinity and The Night Watch, four of which have been adapted as television dramas, though this is her first foray into writing for the stage. Said Waters:

“Chris has been great to work with – really inspirational – and it’s been incredibly productive having someone to brainstorm with. I wasn’t sure how I’d take to writing for the stage. I’m a great theatre-goer, but plays and novels are such different things: working on The Frozen Scream was a bit of a leap into the dark for me. But it’s proved to be a real adventure, and tremendous fun. I’m thrilled to be working in a new medium, with such a talented writer and performer as Chris. I’m looking forward to giving our audiences some scares, and some fun. I’m also excited to be working in my homeland, Wales.”

Christopher Green, on the other hand, is no stranger to creating unusual stage productions. His often experimental work has included the likes of Office Party, VIP, The Razzle and This Show Has No Name, in addition to character-driven comedy centred on creations such as country music singer Tina C and rapping pensioner Ida Barr. Said Green:

“When I started thinking about the show, my ideas kept resonating with my memories of Sarah’s book, The Little Stranger. Having been a fan of Sarah’s work since reading Tipping the Velvet, I was very keen to collaborate with her. Although this feels like such a new way of working for us both, it’s remarkable how smooth the creative process has been so far.  As long as the curse doesn’t kick in, we’ll be rocking, I reckon. I love to constantly surprise my audiences and The Frozen Scream will definitely do that, sending good old-fashioned chills up the spine!”

Both the Wales Millenium Centre’s Artistic Director Graeme Farrow and the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Creative Programme Director Paul Kaynes expressed their excitement to be presenting a production created by “world-class artists” and “writers of the highest calibre”. Said Farrow:

“It’s thrilling to be premiering this unique production…and to be able to offer an exciting, alternative form of Christmas entertainment for our audiences. I believe there is a great deal of synergy between Wales Millennium Centre and Birmingham Hippodrome, and I am hopeful that the present collaboration will help nurture a creative partnership that will see many more exciting collaborations.”Kaynes added, “Christopher Green  – already presenting Ida Barr’s Mash Up at our forthcoming Summer in Southside – and the award winning novelist Sarah Waters  is an extremely exciting creative combination providing an alternative evening out at the theatre over the Festive season.”

The Frozen Scream will be showing at the Wales Millennium Centre from Thursday 11th until Tuesday 20th December 2014, and at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 7th until Saturday 17th January 2015. Audiences are asked to come prepared, wear sensible shoes and, perhaps most importantly, to ‘beware the ice’!

For more information on the show, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Photo of Sarah Waters by annie_c_2 via Flickr, used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0.

Wicked Women and a “Wonderful” Wizard – Wicked UK on Tour

Wicked UK & Ireland Tour_Emily Tierney (Glinda) and Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba)_Credit Matt Crockett_MCR_6654

Last year saw the release of Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, conceived as a sort of prequel to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s story, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Despite its title, Baum’s story is very much a female-centric one, in which the supposedly “wonderful” wizard ultimately proves to be nothing more than a con-man, while the book’s truly powerful characters are its women – Glinda, Dorothy and The Wicked Witch of the West. For all its gorgeous design and the hype surrounding the film, meanwhile, Oz the Great and Powerful proved full of disappointing and, at times, downright misogynist revisionism, and this over a century after the publication of the original book. Fortunately, Raimi and his scriptwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire were not the first to attempt a before-Oz story: ten years prior to the release of the latest Oz film, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s brilliant Wicked first appeared on stage. Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, it is without a doubt a much more positive and interesting Oz prologue that both builds on the proto-feminism of Baum’s work and looks forward to the current trend for revising and revisiting villains that we’ve seen recently in films like Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and, of course, Maleficent.

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It’s difficult to imagine a film like Maleficent existing without Wicked – the musical’s influence is clear in everything from Maleficent‘s plot and characterisation to its modern gothic style. It’s interesting to note here that the film’s director, Robert Stromberg, also acted as production designer on Oz the Great and Powerful, further suggesting that these similarities are no accident. Like the designs in the work of filmmakers such as Stromberg and Tim Burton, Wicked is darkly beautiful and visually stunning, here thanks largely to Susan Hilferty’s amazing and deservedly Tony Award-winning costumes – something like Willy Wonka meets Effie Trinket with steampunk elements. These are complemented well by Tom Watson’s excellent wig designs,The Oz Head_Credit Matthew Crockett while Eugene Lee’s fantastic sets include some truly spellbinding features such as The Clock of the Time Dragon looming ominously above the stage and the Wizard’s huge and terrifying mechanical head.

It’s far from all style and no substance, though. While the score perhaps leaves something to be desired (few of the tunes are what you’d call hummable), the lyrics are great, and there are a few stand-out numbers such as the touching “For Good”, which packs quite an emotional punch for a what’s essentially a fairy tale. Its complex, multi-faceted characters, too, seem to transcend the fairy-tale framework they find themselves in, while the story itself is compelling and thoughtful.

Wicked is a classic tale of social injustice and intolerance told from the perspective of a long-suffering, misunderstood outsider, that warns against placing too much trust in authority figures. Interestingly, it’s not only Elphaba who faces disdain and ridicule from her herd-like peers: there’s an even darker undercurrent that hints at troubled race relations, with Oz’s talking animals caged, enslaved, silenced and blamed for all the ills of the world. A teacher at Elphaba’s and Glinda’s school becomes a literal scapegoat, shortly before the origins of Wonderful Wizard of Oz characters like the Cowardly Lion and the witch’s flying monkeys are revealed. The moral message of the play is brilliantly summed up in the scathingly satirical “Wonderful”, sung by the Wizard in Act II:MCR_7049_RT

‘Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – “history.”

A man’s called a traitor – or liberator,
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist.

They call me “Wonderful”
So I am wonderful.’

The Wizard’s assessment of “history” becomes all the more poignant when considering the fact that the ill-fated, caprine Doctor Dillamond happened to be Elphaba’s history teacher, rendering his removal from the school symbolic in more ways than one.

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Dale Rapley is brilliant as the thoughtful and tragic Doctor Dillamond, standing in sharp contrast with Marilyn Cutts’s perfectly pantomime Madame Morrible, and sharing some genuinely touching moments with Jemma Alexander’s charming Elphaba. Taking over from Nikki Davis-Jones, Alexander really steps up to the role with skill and confidence. Liam Doyle is also great as Fiyero, but perhaps the production’s best performance comes from Emily Tierney as Glinda, who definitely undergoes the most profound changes as the story unfolds. Tierney masterfully manages everything from bitchy airhead schoolgirl “Gah-linda, with a Gah”, to the contrite and grieving grown-up Glinda we see at the end of the show.

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This is a wonderfully entertaining piece of theatre, with plenty of spectacle but also with some important things to say. Last night was the first time I’d ever seen Wicked, but I hope it won’t be the last!

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Rollin’ Along – Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat

Show Boat is a piece of theatre very much of its time, yet one which has aged amazingly well, its humour, social comment and poignant observations still speaking to contemporary audiences.

Before watching Cape Town Opera’s production at the Hippodrome, I’d never seen Show Boat before and didn’t know the story, but for someone raised on a steady Disney diet, many of its elements were strikingly familiar: a rousing, catchy score, a boy-meets-girl, “love at first song” romance, larger-than-life characters and crucially, the suggestion of darker goings-on behind the happy-ever-after facade which are never quite satisfactorily resolved. There’s a reason for these similarities, of course: where Disney films often hark back to an imagined bygone age of happy innocence, Show Boat seems to criticise that same idealism, particularly over the course of its second act, emerging as it does from an era of drastic social change in the early 20th century. In Show Boat, while young “Miss Nola” idly daydreams the days away on her father’s boat before being swept off her feet by a charming would-be gentleman, the Cotton Blossom’s predominantly black crew live through real hardships and face abuse and injustices every day. It also shows us what happens when the “wrong kind” of young lady aspires to her own happy ending with love, fame and fortune: for the secretly mixed-race Julie, everything inevitably falls to pieces. And of course, even Magnolia’s own ever-after soon proves far from perfect: a young mother later abandoned by her gambling husband, she faces potential shame and poverty. Fortunately for Nola, there’s always someone there to help her through her troubles. Unfortunately, however, her hidden “fairy godmother” figure is all too often Julie, whose self-sacrifice and suffering go ever unrewarded, to the point where her eventual tragic death is barely acknowledged.

Like the wider Show Boat production itself, a series of exciting and colourful shows within the show each entertain and draw us in with lively acting, amazing sets and elaborate costumes, even as they hint at tougher, more unpleasant truths: race discrimination in the replacing of Julie with Magnolia, for example, or the desperation of the girls who turn to dancing in seedy clubs to make a living. Through the story of Magnolia and her daughter, Kim, we see cultural shifts of the 1920s and their impact on women’s lives played out. What seems at first to be a tragedy for Magnolia proves ultimately to be a blessing in disguise, granting her the independence to follow her dreams and pursue a performing career, as well as to inspire her daughter to do the same. It’s considerably easier for Kim to get started on that path: by the time her generation comes of age, acting, singing and even dancing for a living are no longer seen as the shameful things they once were. A striking scene at the Chicago World’s Fair really highlights the contrast between these two generations. In 1893, a dark-skinned belly dancer represents the ultimate exotic and erotic other, her clothing and movements considered almost obscene by “respectable”, white, Christian women. Yet within a few short years, the Western girls themselves are wearing much skimpier clothing and publicly performing dances equally as suggestive: by the end of the show, even Kim’s uptight grandmother is wearing a skirt which, in her own disgruntled words, is practically “up to [her] knees”.

Sadly, this gradual increase in freedom for women is not extended to Show Boat’s “coloured folks” – not yet, anyway, although we can perhaps see prefigured in these developments the potential for what comes next, particularly as African American culture, like newly-discovered expressions of female sexuality, gains in coolness and credibility: the manager at the Trocadero is thrilled to hear that Magnolia wants to perform “coloured songs”, and is disappointed when she begins singing them in her own, more traditional style.

It’s far from all serious business though: Show Boat retains the power to make audiences laugh out loud as well as cry, largely thanks to Magnolia’s hilariously mismatched parents: the charismatic Captain Andy and his unhappy wife, played here with excellent comic timing by Graham Hopkins and Anthea Thompson, only get funnier as the show progresses. Angela Kerrison, meanwhile, is soul-crushingly sad as the ill-fated Julie, with her beautiful, bluesy performances of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill”. Her experienced, unhappy character is offset by that of Magnolia, whose naive, trusting overconfidence speaks clearly through Magdalene Minnaar’s powerful, soaring vocals. Caitlin Clerk is also brilliant in her brief stint as the bright and cheery Kim, her charm matched by that of her father, Gaylord, played by Blake Fischer. Undoubtedly though, the true stars of the show are Otto Maidi and Nobuntu Mpahlaza, who couldn’t have been more perfectly cast as the captivating Joe and Queenie. More than any other characters, they scale Show Boat’s full emotional range, from their utterly joyous take on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the sombre and deeply moving “Ol’ Man River”, leaving much of the audience choked up with a magnificent closing rendition of the latter.

Of course, the show couldn’t have been half as successful without the support of its phenomenal chorus and the incredible Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. The entire company belted through each song, from the sad to the mirthful, the classical to the jazzy, with a very well-deserved confidence. It’s rare to see such polish matched by such passion, but CTO do genuinely seem to have it all, and it’s an amazing privilege to have the chance to see such brilliant performers hailing from so far away from home.

Show Boat is playing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 5th July. To book tickets, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the theatre’s website.