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.

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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.

The Birmingham Hippodrome Celebrates a Record Year

BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME - Local schoolchildren enjoying schools matinee performance of pantomime (Parental approval granted)

With over 625,000 tickets sold, the Birmingham Hippodrome has now announced 2013-14 as a record-breaking financial year. The theatre has for been recognised for some time as the country’s most popular single auditorium, averaging around 500,000 visits per year. Representing about 85% of capacity, this year’s increase is thanks in part to a slew of major shows like The Lion King, War Horse and Phantom of the Opera.

The news follows many other important steps forward for the theatre over the last few months, including its successful energy use reductions, its nomination as one of the Sunday Times’s “Top 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For”, and its certification in OHSAS 18001 (Occupational Health and Safety Management), with the Hippodrome believed to be the first UK theatre to achieve the last of these.

stuart-griffithsSaid the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths:

“It’s not very often that these programming moments come together so perfectly, but with more than a little help from our producer partners Cameron Mackintosh, Disney, the National Theatre and Pantomime producers Qdos, alongside others, it looks like we’ve shattered all previous known records.  It’s gratifying too that we’ve seen such a huge rise in first-time bookers with over 48% new to the Hippodrome in the last 12 months.

“Dance received a boost with our resident partners Birmingham Royal Ballet presenting its most successful Nutcracker  at Christmas; and Mathew Bourne’s sell out Swan Lake.   We ended the financial year this spring with two other huge successes, the classics Fiddler on the Roof and Singin’ in the Rain.”

In addition to a surge in ticket sales, the theatre’s Hippodrome Plus outreach scheme has been attracting a lot of attention, with the number of people involved in its creative learning projects having doubled to over 16,000. Big outdoor events like Summer in Southside, Illuminate and the Four Squares Weekender have been key to this growth. Elsewhere, fundraising has also increased dramatically, with generous donations from members of the public, as well as an expansion of the patron scheme and a rise in corporate membership of over 30%.

Neil Pugh - Building FrontEncouraged by this success, the Hippodrome team are now investing in lots of exciting new projects for the upcoming year. Said John Crabtree, Chair of the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust,

“In keeping with the successful formula created in recent years, the success of the last financial year is already being used to invest in the programme and towards further developing a diverse audience.  The month-long International Dance Festival Birmingham, co-produced with DanceXchange, starts at the end of April, South Africa’s Cape Town Opera return in July with their production of Show Boat whilst St. Petersburg’s acclaimed Mariinsky Opera bring Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Birmingham in November.”

Theatre exterior photo by Neil Pugh.

Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat Sails Into Birmingham on its First UK & Ireland Tour

ImageThis week, the Birmingham Hippodrome is releasing tickets for its summer run of Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat. As the first stop on its upcoming UK and Ireland tour in July, the Hippodrome and its audiences will be treated to the country’s first ever performance of this production.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat is set in the old American south, and was first performed on Broadway in 1927. It tells the story of the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River Show Boat, following the lives of its performers, stagehands, and dock workers over a 40-year period.

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In the Cape Town Opera production, the theme of racial tensions is given added significance, reflecting South Africa’s troubled past while looking forward to the bright future ahead. The company has performed to great acclaim around the world, and its chorus was last year named Best International Opera Chorus at the International Opera Awards.

Glad to welcome Cape Town Opera back to Birmingham after its 2012 tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths describes the booking as part of the theatre’s “ongoing ambition to bring the city the best in international performance from the finest companies across the world”.

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Directed by Janice Honeyman and accompanied by the Cape Philarmonic Orchestra, the show features set design by the renowned Johan Engels, and over 200 carefully crafted period costumes.

Said Michael Williams, Managing Director of Cape Town Opera:

“We are thrilled to bring Cape Town Opera’s production of Show Boat to the UK for the very first time, with an exceptional cast, our award-winning chorus and joined by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. This first UK visit of this production will showcase the talents of the company whilst offering a wonderful spectacle and experience for all the family.”

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Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 2nd to Saturday 5th July. Member tickets are on sale from today, and tickets will be available for the general public from Wednesday 12th February, priced at £17.50-£43. To book, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome Website. If you’re aged 16-23 and using the First Night scheme, don’t forget to tell us what you think.

Images by Malin Arnesson.