Explosive: Dance Consortium Presents Grupo Corpo at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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A truly explosive feast of a show, last night’s Grupo Corpo transported the vibrancy and liveliness of the Brazilian carnival to the darkness of an autumn evening in Birmingham.

Combining fluid, fast-paced dancing with a rich musical tapestry woven from diverse instrumental strands, Part 1 begins slowly before bursting into a series of breathtakingly dynamic set pieces. The South American dance troupe leap across the stage, each dressed in intricately decorated, individually-made suits designed to give the impression of full-body tattoos. All classically trained, their work is a unique, innovative fusion of traditional ballet and the movements of everyday life in Brazil’s urban centres. On Tuesday night, the pounding rhythms of the music soon proved irresistible even to viewers, who struggled to sit still in their seats.

PARABELO3520MIt isn’t all relentless energy, however: the buzz occasionally subsides to make room for more intimate, gentle duets. As the group explained in a post-show Q & A, parts of the performance draw on centuries-old stories of women who lost their men to the sea. The sadness and longing of the stories lend these quieter moments an immediacy and emotional resonance that makes them deeply moving even without the background information. The historical inspiration is also carried through elsewhere, surfacing in the swaying, tidal movements that flow throughout Act I.

In Act II, the brilliant, summery colours give way to a darker, more sombre vibe. Dressed in autumnal greens and browns, the dancers move more thoughtfully and purposefully against an eerie backdrop of expressionless heads. Towards the end, this backdrop is transformed into a collage of faded photographs, evoking all the joy and sadness of a nostalgic look through an old family album. This serves as a background for dance sequences with more modern inspirations, that mark a return to the fast-paced energy and bright colours of Act I.

SEMMIM3054MIn addition to showcasing some fantastic dance and music, the evening also served as a trial for a new project the Hippodrome is embarking upon, with members of the press invited to participate in “Tweet Seating”. Light-shading boxes were distributed, and those taking part were seated in a side section in order to minimise disruption to surrounding audience members. It was really fascinating to read the thoughts and observations of fellow audience members during the show, and you can now read a Storify selection of what people had to say about it. However, it did prove tricky to concentrate on more than one thing at once, and this is probably something that would only work for particular kinds of shows. In a more narrative, dramatic performance, it would be easy to lose the thread of a story by attempting to tweet about it live. Still, it was a fun experiment, and it will definitely be interesting to see where the theatre takes it next!

Find out more about Grupo Corpo and watch the trailer by visiting the Birmingham Hippodrome website, or read about Tweet Seating on the Birmingham Hippodrome blog.

Two Upcoming Productions: Anything Goes and Beautiful Thing

Anything_Goes_AUG14_AWTwo exciting productions will be coming to the Birmingham Hippodrome next year, making use of both the main stage and the more intimate Patrick Centre venue. In Spring, the Patrick Centre will play host to Nikolai Foster’s anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. Then in September, Cole Porter’s classic musical comedy Anything Goes will take over the theatre, with tickets for the show going on sale today!

A brand new production directed by Daniel Evans and choreographed by Alistair David, Anything Goes will stop off at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 14th until Saturday 19th September 2015 as part of its UK-wide tour. The musical tells the story of the attempts of Wall Street broker Billy Crocker to win the heart of rich English heiress Hope Harcourt from her fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. With the help of second-rate gangster “Moonface” Martin (“Public Enemy Number 13”), and his girlfriend Bonnie, Billy stows away on the S. S. American, a luxury cruise liner aboard which Hope and Lord Oakleigh are bound for Southampton.

The multi-award-winning show is packed full of iconic Cole Porter songs such as “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “It’s De-Lovely” and of course the titular tune “Anything Goes”, all accompanied by a fabulous live orchestra and energetic, 1930s-style dancing. The new production will be performed from a new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, adapted from the original by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

Said Rebecca Quigley, CEO of Stage Entertainment UK:  “I’m very excited to be working with Daniel and Alistair, whose work I have loved over the last ten years. They’re the perfect creative team to stage this hugely entertaining musical comedy.”

Priced at £17-39.50, tickets are currently available to book via the Birmingham Hippodrome website, or by calling 0844 338 5000. With just six dates scheduled for Birmingham, they’re likely to go fast, so make sure you book early to avoid disappointment!
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Meanwhile, from 30th March until 11th April 2015, Jonathan Harvey’s acclaimed drama Beautiful Thing will be showing in the Patrick Centre, under the direction of Nikolai Foster, who will take up the mantle of Artistic Director at Leicester’s Curve Theatre in January.

Set in the post-war council estates of South East London, Beautiful Thing tells the moving story of a budding romance between teenagers Jamie and Ste, who must grapple with dysfunctional families, gobby neighbours and obnoxious classmates, as well as coming to terms with their feelings for each other. For all that, the play’s serious subject matter is offset by a strong sense of humour and an optimistic attitude that makes this as much romantic-comedy as gritty social commentary.

Following the winter run of Christopher Green’s and Sarah Waters’s The Frozen Scream at the theatre, the decision to book Beautiful Thing seems to demonstrate a commitment on the theatre’s part to branching out into new territory and increasing the diversity of its programme. As Birmingham Hippodrome Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths explained,

“The arrival of Beautiful Thing in the theatre’s Patrick Centre continues an expanding programme for the venue and Birmingham Hippodrome’s commitment to presenting an expansive and varied list of performances for a diverse range of audiences.”

Originally written by Jonathan Harvey when he was just 24, Beautiful Thing premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1993, and has since gone on to be adapted into a well-loved film. Over the years, its various reimaginings have starred the likes of Jonny Lee Miller, Suranne Jones, Hugh Bonneville, Philip Glennister, Andrew Garfield, and Rhys Ifans.

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Co-produced by the Nottingham Playhouse, the Curve Leicester and Tom O’Connell for QNQ, this particular production will star Sam Jackson (Skins, Drifters) and Thomas Law (EastEnders, Casualty, The World’s End) as young lovers Jamie and Ste, while Charlie Brooks (EastEnders, Bleak House, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!, Strictly Come Dancing) will take on the role of Jamie’s ambitious single mother Sandra. Said Executive Producer Tom O’Connell said:

“Having produced the original anniversary production, I am honoured to now partner with Nottingham Playhouse and Curve theatre, Leicester, two fantastic producing theatres, to bring Jonathan’s hit comedy to the stage one more time. Nikolai and I made a promise to each other that if we ever re-visited his production it would play cities and theatres that it hadn’t been to before. We feel with this new cast and with some new elements added to the show, this new production will have audiences smiling all the way home.”

Beautiful Thing runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre from Monday 30th March until Saturday 11th April 2015, with tickets currently available to book from the Hippodrome website, or by calling 0844 338 5000. The first 100 tickets for each performance will be priced at an early bird rate of £25.

Make Up Magic – Backstage with the Cast of CATS

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Today, the CATS musical tour begins its hotly anticipated run at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where it will be presented to excited audiences until 27th September. In advance of this evening’s first night performance, members of the press were invited backstage to watch the cast prepare for the show, with actors Filippo Strocchi and Callum Train giving us an exclusive glimpse into the creation of their characters, Rum Tum Tugger and Munkustrap.

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Unsurprisingly, learning to turn yourself into a cat is a tricky and sometimes slow process. Though the musical was first performed over 30 years ago, the make-up designs are subtly changed for each production to suit the faces of the actors involved. Callum and Filippo described the first time they got into full make-up, when a professional artist painted half their face and they were left to copy her designs on the other side. Detailed instructions on how to recreate each look are issued to the actors early on, and it can take a fair few attempts before they’re happy to take their chances without using these.

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Now, with practice and confidence, it typically takes 20-30 minutes to get fully made-up, but there have been some efforts made to get finished faster: after discovering that Marlene Danielle, who performed in CATS on Broadway for an astonishing 17 years, claimed that, with all her experience, she could get ready in just 7 minutes, the cast instigated their own “7-minute challenge”, with varying degrees of success…

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But despite the thick layers of make-up, and all the effort that goes into the feline transformation, the final result is apparently nothing like as uncomfortable as it looks. According to Filippo, even with sensitive skin, the high-quality make-up the actors use causes no irritation, though removing everything from around their eyes can be tricky! The costumes too, though not the easiest to squeeze yourself into, are specially made to fit each actor, rendering them quite snug and comfortable to wear. “It’s like a second skin,” said Callum. 

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Of course, another good reason to have fresh costumes for each performer is that, once worn on stage a few times, they won’t be left in a particularly pleasant state. CATS is a breathtakingly energetic show, that includes one of the longest, toughest dance sequences to appear in any musical. It’s partly thanks to the Jellicle Ball scene that the actors need a lot of powder on their faces, in order to prevent their make-up from running when they inevitably start to sweat!

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Since every single member of the ensemble cast has a named, recognisable part, CATS is a show where no one can get away without looking and sounding their very best on stage. Because of this, it’s a brilliant show for actors, giving everyone a chance to shine and make their presence known. On the other hand, it’s truly exhausting work, and the huge demands it places on its actors can make it very difficult to cast. 

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For Italian Filippo, being a part of CATS has some special, personal resonance, this being the show that originally inspired his career. “When I was ten, I saw CATS in London,” he explained. “Before that, I had been mostly interested in football and rock music, and I didn’t really know anything about musicals. It changed my life.”

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Who knows – perhaps through his own performance as Rum Tum Tugger, Filippo may go on to inspire a new generation of young actors….

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CATS will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 10-27 September. To book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

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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.

Coming Up at the International Dance Festival Birmingham 2014

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With the International Dance Festival Birmingham 2014 now over a week underway, there are still plenty more exciting shows to look forward to before the month is through.

After their eagerly anticipated openings last night, both Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away and the Aakash Odedra Company’s double bill Murmur & Inked will be returning this evening to the Birmingham Hippodrome, on the main stage and in the Patrick Centre, respectively. Widely hailed as one of the world’s greatest dancers, in 6000 Miles Away, Sylvie Guillem performs William Forsythe’s Rearray and Mats Ek’s Bye, set to Beethoven’s last sonata. Meanwhile, in Murmur and Inked, Aakash Odedra collaborates with choreographer Lewis Major, the Ars Electronica Futurelab and Oliver Award-winner Damien Jalet, to explore themes of dyslexia and the transformation of the body through scarring and tattoos.

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From Thursday through to the weekend, you’ll be able to catch some awe-inspiring acrobatics from groundbreaking Montreal circus company Les 7 Doigts de la Main in Séquence 8 at the Birmingham REP, as well as some impressive work from Birmingham City University’s School of Architecture, which will be displayed in a Millennium Point open exhibition titled All of Birmingham is a Stage.

OOn Friday and Saturday, Company Decalage will present a world premiere double bill of Match & Half Way to the Other Side in the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre, while outside, Corey Baker Dance will be giving passers-by the chance to experience some traditional Maori Haka dancing in Centenary Square.

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Next week’s festivities will kick off on Tuesday with Border Tales from Luca Silvestrini’s Protein, a witty, satirical show blending dance, dialogue and live music, and taking place in the Patrick Centre. From Wednesday, the Hippodrome’s main stage will be taken over by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures for a chilling yet beautiful dance adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. Finally on Saturday, those a little more strapped for cash can enjoy an array of free, outdoor dance performances at Put Your Foot Down in Spiceall Street, near the Bullring.

There’ll also be lots to see and do during the last week of the festival (more on this soon), including DJs, dancers, workshops and demonstrations and Sadler’s Wells’s Breakin’ Convention, and an exploration of Argentinian tango in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M¡longa, both in the Hippodrome theatre.

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For more information on all upcoming shows and to book tickets, visit the IDFB website.

I’m Dreaming of a Snow White Christmas…. The Hippodrome’s 2013 Christmas Panto

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Nothing says Christmas quite like a panto – other than, perhaps, being shocked out of your skin by a man in a Christmas tree costume, but I shall say no more on that. Packed full of magic, music and mischief, the country’s biggest and best professional pantomime never fails to leave audiences full of festive cheer, and this year was no exception.

JS26360892-6379573Beginning with the descent of a sparkling, silver-clad Gok Wan from a magic mirror suspended in the air, the spectacle was superb throughout, with vibrant, colourful costumes, expertly choreographed dance sequences and some breathtaking special effects, including an enormous, terrifying dragon from the darkest, deadliest depths of the Black Country. The show’s many sets were also incredible, seamlessly shifting from one elaborate backdrop to another.

Of course, at it’s heart, pantomime is all about the comedy, and here it was laid on as thick as Dame Nora Crumble’s make-up by Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack as the Dame and her hapless, lovesick sons Muddles and Oddjob. First and foremost a comedian, Slack really stole the show, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Birmingham Hippodrome. 23rd Sepleaving the audience howling with his slapstick and one-liners. Meanwhile ventriloquist Paul Zerdin built up the humour over longer routines, often involving a lot of audience participation, as in one almost unbearably funny scene where two viewers were called up onto the stage and left at the puppet-master’s mercy. As for the Dame herself, Wilmot excelled at the musical comedy, with a rousing number extolling local Brummie curry dish, balti, and a lovely singing voice that lent itself well to a more sentimental song about motherhood. The highlight of the show, though, was a lightning-speed musical bit packed full of physical comedy and involving all three members of the little family as well as Man in the Mirror Gok Wan: by the end of it, even Gok himself couldn’t keep a straight face, bursting into a fit of uncontrollable giggles.

snow white 2013 4Though this was his first foray into the world of acting, Gok was, as ever, charming and brilliant, showing off his moves in his own mirror-themed musical number (#FABULOUS!). Equally fabulous in her own way was Stephanie Beacham as the wicked Queen Sadista. Though perhaps not quite the fairest in the land, the glamorous villainess could certainly give most a run for their money, and of her dazzling outfits it was impossible not to be “well jeal”.

Towards the end, her transformation into the old crone was a properly spooky, Hammer-esque moment, featuring a strange,  ghostly figure floating above the stage. And as if that wasn’t enough for your Christmas ghost story fix, an appearance is also put in at one point by a mysterious headless horseman….

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Birmingham Hippodrome. 23rd SepOne general criticism is that less time was spent with the lead characters than might normally be expected, and the story itself was mostly secondary to the comic set pieces. All told, though, it mattered little, since it’s such an energetic and entertaining production that whatever’s lacking in traditional storytelling is more than made up for elsewhere. Without giving too much away, it was especially interesting to see a new take on the story’s ending with the Queen facing a rather unusual fate.

Overall then, a triumph once again. If you haven’t quite got into the festive spirit yet, then a trip to see this show should be just the ticket!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday 2nd February 2014. Don’t forget to check out Gok Does Panto at 7:05pm on Monday 30th December for a look behind the scenes. You might even catch a glimpse of me at the rehearsals in the Jerwood Space in London!

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Top photo by Tal Fox. Check out her blog here.

“Delivered From Madness” – The BSA’s Equus at the Patrick Centre

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Sliding in an instant from in-depth philosophical musing one moment to total nudity the next, Equus is far from an easy choice for training, undergraduate actors, making the BSA’s recent production at the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre all the more impressive.

cmsproxyimageWith professional-standard acting ability all round, the cast tackled the play’s difficult and disturbing themes with ease, gauging the tone just right and providing their characters with real psychological depth. From the beginning, the lead actors were thoroughly compelling: Harry Russell maintained a commanding presence as Dysart throughout, while Jack Whitehurst effortlessly conveyed the complex and turbulent inner life of the troubled Alan Strang.

The supporting cast, too, were excellent, with Gareth Adams and Vivian Glaskin convincingly downtrodden and desperate as Alan’s pitiable parents. Grace Bussey, meanwhile, underwent a complete transformation between her two roles as Jill Mason and the Nurse. Had the play allowed for it, it would have been great to see more from this actress, but in spite of her characters’ limitations, her talent nevertheless shone through. As Nugget and the Horseman on the beach, Mikael Froman’s energy was utterly tireless, and with the help of some beautifully made horse-head props, reminiscent of the skeleton-like structures used in The National Theatre’s War Horse, the rest of the cast joined him to create an amazingly effective herd of horses, capturing the creatures’ subtle movements and raw animal pain.

Though minimal, the set was well designed, making the best possible use of the space available which became, at various points, hospital, home, stable, beach, cinema and bus stop. Even when not performing, the full cast generally remained on stage, something which could easily have become distracting had it not been so well done.

Overall, the production demonstrated a great deal of promise, ability and professionalism from its young actors, who, based on this, should be proud of their achievements and confident about their future careers.