Ringside – Special Events Inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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To coincide with its full run of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in November, the Birmingham Hippodrome is presenting a series of special, themed events from 25th October until 8th November. Called Ringside, the diverse programme encompasses everything from film to cabaret, concerts to family friendly adventure games.

Kicking things off in The Patrick Centre on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th October, Reel Access will be screening a film titled Twilightofthefreakinggods, adapted from a play by Stan’s Café, which is in turn based on Wagnerian opera. All in black and white, this striking, wordless movie features a stunning original soundtrack. Twilightofthefreakinggods begins at  6.30pm on the Saturday and 2.30pm on the Sunday, with tickets priced at £6. Check out the Stan’s Cafe website for more information and clips, or click here to book.

Then, on Saturday 1st November, a packed schedule starts at 11am with One Of Our Singers Is Missing, a real-life, interactive game open to all. Participants will be sent to search for a missing opera singer, following clues to save the star and bring them safely back to the Hippodrome. This free adventure will be taking place every 15 minutes until 4pm. To join in, you’ll need to book a place via the Birmingham Hippodrome Website.

At 4pm, Neil Brand, presenter of BBC4’s acclaimed Sound of Cinema – The Music that Made the Movies series, will be discussing modern film scores and searching for elements of Wagner within them. Film Music and the Ghost of Wagner will be taking place in the Patrick Centre with tickets priced at £10. Click here to book.

Then from 5.30pm, students from the Birmingham Conservatoire will be taking over the Hippodrome foyer to play Wagner’s much-loved Siegfried Idyll, conducted by David Purser. Based on one of Brunnhilde’s melodies from The Ring Cycle, the song was written by the composer as a birthday present to his wife. This event will be open to all with no advance booking required.

This beautiful free concert will be followed by an evening of cabaret with West End stars Kit and McConnell, who will be offering their own irreverent take on the opera repertoire in The Fat Lady Sings. A veteran of Radio 4’s Just A Minute, Kit Hesketh Harvey is also well known for his work as one half of comedy duo, Kit and the Widow. The Fat Lady Sings will take place in the Patrick Centre from 7.30pm. Tickets cost £18 and can be booked online here.

On Sunday 2nd November, Birmingham’s Electric Cinema will be running a special screening of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried at 11.30am. One of the classics of early cinema, this 1924 film will be accompanied by an authentic live piano score played by Neil Brand. Tickets cost £10-16.50 and can be booked via The Electric’s website.

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Finally, on Saturday 8th November, leading soprano singers Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster will discuss the challenges of performing in a five-hour-long opera in Brunch with the Brunnhildes at 11.30am in the Patrick Centre. Hosted by Spectator journalist and presenter of Radio 4’s Front Row, Matthew D’Ancona, the event will cost £25 to attend with brunch included in the ticket price. Menu and booking details can be found on the Hippodrome website.

The Ring Cycle will run at the Birmingham Hippodrome in four parts, presented on Wednesday 5th, Thursday 6th, Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th November. Each show will be conducted by Valery Gergiev and performed by the Mariinsky Opera. More information is available here.

Summer in Southside, Closing Weekend: Bank Holiday Jamboree

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A jamboree jam-packed with a huge range of amazing live acts, the closing weekend of this year’s Summer in Southside finished off the festival in spectacular style, with singing, dancing, clowning, acrobatics and a truly explosive finale!

The events kicked off on Saturday with Ida Barr’s Mash-Up, a hilariously bizarre blend of music hall, R&B and pantomime drag led by acclaimed theatre creative Christopher Green, while Inspector Sands‘ audio tour High Street Odyssey roamed Hurst Street and Arcadian, delving into the past, present and future of Southside with some surprising consequences.

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At 1.30, Wired Aerial Theatre presented a series of spectacular feats in Straw Dog, with two performers portraying internal conflict through a breathtaking physical struggle, inspired by a Native American saying. At the same time, Candoco Dance Company explored the themes of frustration and disappointment through two duets – Studies for C and Two for C – telling the story of a slowly stagnating relationship. Meanwhile, in Push, Tangled Feet offered a playful and touching take on the trials and tribulations of motherhood, perfectly capturing both the sheer joy and utter anguish of bearing and raising children.

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Showcasing circus skills and traditional clowning, Le Navet Bête‘s Extravaganza was a fun, family-friendly farce taking over Arcadian in between appearances by Ida Barr. In sharp contrast, the Helen Chadwick Song Theatre‘s poignant White Suit used music to tell the story of an aspiring footballer who becomes a landmine victim, highlighting people’s willingness to ignore the suffering of others rather than risk the consequences that helping out might have on their own lives.

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Throughout the day, popular arias were presented in a series of pop-up shows by Oyster Opera, while Icarus‘s beefy Rugby Player Duo wandered through the crowds on stilts, chatting to visitors, actors and volunteers alike.

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And of course, beneath the Arcadian Umbrella, the Hippodrome Plus Youth Ambassadors were on hand to chat about the shows at the Talkaoke table, hosting a series of interesting discussions with creatives and performers from Wired Aerial Theatre, La Navet Bête, Southpaw Dance Company and High Street Odyssey.

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On Sunday, High Street Odyssey, Straw Dog, White Suit and Extravaganza returned, while Talkaoke was shifted to prime position in front of the Hippodrome theatre.

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Taking over from Ida Barr, Circus Mash set up early in Arcadian, showing off some amazing circus skills and calling on audience members to participate in workshops in Float, with a great response from lots of enthusiastic kids and parents. At 2.30 and 5.30, Company Chameleon‘s Push examined the complexities of human interaction and power balances.

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At the end of the night, audiences were invited to grab themselves some gourmet hot dogs and dance to tunes chosen by Summer in Southside’s guest DJs, The Smoking Dogs, before settling down to watch Southpaw Dance Company‘s Faust. A lively reimagining of the harrowing tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, Faust saw the story’s arrogant scholar transported to 1920s Speakeasy, with drinking, gambling and illegitimate boxing all set to cool big band music. Members of the company moved fluidly and faultlessly across a blazing stage, performing complex stunts and energetic dance fusions all with apparent effortlessness.

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DSCF2034Finally Arcadian’s Le Truc played host to a late-night festival wrap party where the Summer in Southside team finally got to relax, enjoying a well-earned rest accompanied by more music. It was fun enough to make some of us miss the last train home….

If you attended any of the shows, please let @brumhippodrome know what you thought on Twitter using the hashtag #BHOutdoors.

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.