Review: ‘The Red Shoes’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Ballet is increasingly becoming something I want to go and watch, following the wonders of ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Swan Lake’, and given the acclaim following it to the stage, it seemed counter-intuitive not to put on ‘The Red Shoes’.

The first 20 minutes, as a ballet novice, left me a little lost. However, this was as far as I could go in any form of misunderstanding, because from the moment Victoria Page reaches stardom it all becomes clear – the play within a play, in particular, was a wonderful bit of stagecraft that took my breath away.

‘The Red Shoes’ is a ballet full of wonder, heartache and breathtaking moments. Personal favourites included the love scene between Victoria Page and Julian Craster, where this show proved chemistry, a fabulous score and amazing dancing is all you need to experience pure love. Another favourite was when, after being presented with the red shoes for the first time, Victoria Page is gently encouraged into the stage light at the end of a dance expressing her confusion and elation; it spoke of her destiny within the production.

No expense was spared within the production itself; the sets and costumes were stunning and really made the story leave the stage. In fact, I have to say that (albeit in my limited experience) I’ve never seen a ballet that involved so much acting as well as dancing; it normally feels like acting has been discouraged, and I loved its involvement here in intensifying the drama.

‘The Red Shoes’ returns to Birmingham Hippodrome in the summer, and I urge you to book tickets quickly – if February was a sell-out before the reviews came out, what will happen to availability after this stellar run? Get your shoes on before it’s too late – just be careful which ones you pick up…

 

‘Dick Whittington’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome – December 2016

This year’s panto has arrived at the Birmingham Hippodrome – oh yes it has! And both the Hippodrome and the audience were thrilled to welcome back John Barrowman after an eight year absence – and my, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder!

In true rip-roaring tradition, the Hippodrome’s latest panto was funny, risque (talking boobs anyone?!) and downright ridiculous, catering to everyone from toddler to teens and, of course, the ticket-paying parents! The storyline was put aside for making you genuinely glad to have stepped out the house to enjoy this comedy showcase, with panto regular Matt Slack being a highlight with his brilliant impersonations, razor-sharp wit and inventive replacements for dialogue – I’ll say no more…

The one character I came home utterly in love with (besides John Barrowman, he’s an older love from a Torchwood time) was Babby the Tabby – the best Brummie cat I ever did see. I now only wish that my cat could talk so I could mould him into Babby Junior.

But, of course, Barrowman and Babby were not the only stars of the show. Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) was a superb baddy in King Rat, and I only wish we could have seen more of the giant rat he was working for, particularly at the end to see how King Rat fared against his boss’s displeasure!

Jodie Prenger, from the TV show ‘I’d Do Anything’, has a spectacular voice, and the Krankies were in fine form as the comedy duo of the piece – Jimmy Krankie in particular was an absolute riot! Add to that a chorus of talented backing dancers, singers, actors, and a clearly talented backstage crew, and this is a panto you won’t forget in a hurry – particularly if you’ve never seen Captain Jack fly an upside down reindeer! And that’s not to forget the spectacular (if rather scary!) 3D effects in the second half.

In short, Birmingham has once again excelled itself in providing festive entertainment for all the family – it’s hysterical, it’s amusing, and it’s everything the holiday season needs, so get yourself to where the streets are paved with gold and turn your fortunes into those of Dick Whittington today!

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Review: ‘The Nutcracker’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

‘The Nutcracker’ is a festive favourite around the country and the world – the music, the Christmas wonders, the magic…it’s hard not

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Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

to fall in love with one of the world’s definitive ballet shows.

After seeing Sir Peter Wright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome, here are my top five reasons to use this phenomenal ballet to project you into the Christmas spirit…

  1. The costumes: having had a sneaky peak at the costumes backstage, they are as stunning close up as they are in the shimmering stage lights of the theatre. They’re a sight to behold, and the dancers look exquisite as they lead you around Clara’s dreams.
  2. The sheer skill: ballet is one of the toughest disciplines going – if you don’t believe me, watch a ballet dancer sitting at rest, you’ll find their backs are still poker straight and their feet in formation. It’s no wonder, therefore, that this skill translates into something beautiful, magical and breathtaking on the stage. The smallest move has the utmost grace – if a picture’s worth a thousand words, a ballet movement is worth so much more.
  3. The props and set: a flying swan, the ultimate Christmas decadence and toys fit for royal offspring. That’s all I need to say.
  4. The music: you’ll recognise more than you’d realise! Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces are never better heard than with a live and hugely talented band who deserve every second of applause they receive.
  5. How it makes you feel: it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll leave wanting to put up (possibly another) Christmas tree, blast out the festive music and bring the sparkle of Christmas day to every day – after all, what else is a sugar plum fairy meant to do to you?!

If you’ve never seen a ballet before and have been curious, this is the one for you – the relaxed family atmosphere, the familiarity of the family scenes and music, and the magic of toys come to life in a land of sweets and dreams is enough to bring out anyone’s inner child and let you stare in delight at the stage for two hours of wonder.

Enjoy yourselves – and merry Christmas!

Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I was a skeptic; ever since first hearing of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ with the ITV1 talent search in 2011, I found it preposterous that something as sacred as religion had been turned into a mere musical, despite loving musicals in all shapes and forms.

I am now officially a convert.

I cannot stop thinking about the performance of ‘JCS’ running at the Birmingham Hippodrome in November 2015. It was stunning and – more than that – it made me rethink my view of one of society’s oldest institutions. I am by no means undergoing a religious conversion, but I’d always thought of it almost as a moralistic tale where people suffered artfully and told long rambling tales to make us understand how to behave – not any more. The suffering of Judas, Pilate and Jesus is haunting in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, so much so that by the end I was ready to cry. In particular, the literally painfully drawn out final scene, where Jesus is nailed screaming to the cross, was hideous for both the obvious and more obscure meanings. His cries of anguish were tormenting, but equally it made us realise: no matter what else he might have been, Jesus was a man of flesh and blood when this happened, and felt everything, calling for his mother and water, never denying his essential humanity. It was here that Glenn Carter, as Jesus, really outshone himself; yes, Gethsemane was stunningly sung, but this was his piece de resistance, and it was truly humbling.

Having seen my fair share of musical theatre, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen such a well choreographed or suitably used cast before. Their movements were so well coordinated without looking false, and intensified the musical dramatics no end; the highlight for this had to be during ‘The Temple’ scene, where Jesus’ cry of ‘heal yourself’ was riveting in the midst of the claustrophobia around him, the faceless and helpless people literally drowning him in their requests.

Two things I have to pull out, though, are Tim Rogers and Rachel Adedejie as Judas and Mary Magdalene. They both had something the other lacked, one more so than another. Judas was hugely moving; his constant lurking presence on stage made his final confused status as victim and murderer compelling. However, there were times when his voice was perhaps not used to its potential, and that potential was clearly there because ‘Superstar’ was astounding right at the end, but before it was perhaps too heavily focused on acting rather than singing. Needless to say this was incredibly minor, particularly when the reacting to things like Jesus’ beatings and arrest were so moving, but noticeable in the face of performances such as Tim Minchin’s in the 2012 revival.

The opposite happened with Mary Magdalene. She felt like a token presence on stage, which was mildly irritating, as though a woman was necessary for looks but nothing else. Likewise, her singing was flawless, but in an idealised way; there was no trouble, no heartbreak behind it, which made ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ slightly hollow, which is a shame for such an amazing song. Her acting needed vamping up and injecting into her singing to make the perfect performance.

If I had to pick a favourite segment, it has to be Caiphus and Anas’ initial scenes within the council. ‘This Jesus Must Die’ is my favourite arrangement; the tempo, variety and characters were stunning. A close second had to be ‘Trial Before Pilate’, which was utterly brilliant; seeing Pilate as a victim was much like seeing Judas as one – a moving revelation. His final exasperated pleas to Jesus were breathtaking, and the transformation between empowered statesman to a man holding life in his hands was flawless – it was definitely here where I started to lose control of my emotions!

The ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tour comes to an end soon, but I can only live in hope that it will restart again in the imminent future, because I would be one of the first to show my devotion at a theatrical temple to such a breathtaking and lyrically infectious musical.

Review: ‘Blood Brothers’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome, October 2014

A show guaranteed to leave you emotionally crippled, ‘Blood Brothers’ has been running for decades and – judging by last night’s audience reaction – will be running for many more.

Having seen this twice before, both times with Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone, my expectations were high. Without a doubt, the Narrator (Kristofer Harding) was the standout performance; he was brutal as the conscience, but rivetingly emotional in the final scenes, and his voice…he was the star of the show in my eyes, his tones moving between pity, fury and mocking with ease. Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Joel Benedict) were flawless, growing up before our eyes as two men who should have everything to gain from knowing one another but instead take a wrong turning and lose sight of the other.

I do, however, have a bug bear. Despite all the outstanding performances, one jarred with me, and that was Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone. When singing normally and acting some of the happier parts, she was fine. But then came this bizarre attempt at growling sections of her songs, her comedy screams when being attacked by Mrs Lyons and searching for Mickey, and more irritatingly her interactions with the audience at the beginning of the second half. I think I’ve been spoiled seeing Niki Evans twice; she was sublime and I felt everything she portrayed personally and more. If I was to pinpoint a moment that exemplified how I felt, it was the finale. I was tearful during ‘Tell me it’s not true’, and Mrs Johnstone was devastating in her initial rendition and I felt bad for doubting her; then it got to thirty seconds before the end of the song and I have no idea what was being attempted, but some form of noise came from Nolan in what I suspect was a moment of dramatic flair, but actually burst the emotional balloon that had been filled from before, leaving a decidedly deflated feeling. But then there were other times when this power was needed in her vocals and I got the feeling she flaked out of using that power that she clearly had but hadn’t refined, instead going a bit whispy in her singing.

However, it is easy to be negative about something, and overall I did love this show yet again as it stole my heart and broke it expertly. Particularly at the end, I felt the tragedy of Mr and Mrs Lyons, a couple who just wanted to do the best by their family, and yes Mrs Lyons went a terrible way around getting this life, but I’d struggle to say it was for any other reason than love. I think it’s appropriate, really, that Linda falls into obscurity during the final song; not only as a cause of the situation through the ‘light romance’, but also because the grief of three parents far outshone her own.

It’s also interesting how, despite being a musical of the 1950s, everything still rings alarmingly true today; class divides, educational advantages, and of course familial issues that have no right and easy answer. I think, particularly at last night’s performance, I felt that final one, that idea of family being all and yet being beyond our control despite how much we invest in it. It was chilling.

‘Blood Brothers’ continues its tour around the UK, and it may well just be me that has issues with the current Mrs Johnstone, so I do urge you to share in the heartbreak, because ultimately it reminds us to take every opportunity and love our community, whether they be blood family or otherwise.

‘Singing’ in the Rain’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

 

Having been indoctrinated on 50s films by my mother (and beginning to realise she was right about them being brilliant), I booked a birthday trip to the tour of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Having heard about the gallons of rain used in every performance, I was definitely intrigued as to the style of this performance.

As expected, it stays true to the film; I’m not sure it would ever work having an individual or modern take on such a classic film. Don Lockwood was classically gorgeous, Cosmo was the perfect comic best friend, and Lina Lamont was just spectacular. The only character I perhaps had some doubts over was Kathy Seldon initially, but I warmed to her throughout. I think it’s probably my own fault; I expected Debbie Reynolds in her calm sophistication, and considering Kathy is the antidote to Lina, the original scenes with her in the musical were a bit too high pitched and frantic to really capture that. However, this did evolve throughout to present a Kathy we fell in love with, just as Don does, through her humility and grace in the face of the dog-whistle-resembling tones of Lina Lamont.

And it doesn’t seem right not to shine a light on Lina and Cosmo – by far they were my favourite actors in the troupe. Lina and her hilarious attempts to say ‘can’t’ was spot on in creating this caricature of a Hollywood starlet who is betrayed by advancing technology. Likewise, Cosmo was a star in his own right, not at all reliant on Don in providing comedy gold – the only one able to get away with openly mocking Lina, and the one able to make light relief of what could be overly-serious moments. His rendition of ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ was so well staged, everything knitted together to perfection in order to appear ridiculous and well-crafted simultaneously.

The rain sequence was also spectacular (although I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the front row!). As with every number, the choreography was superb – I’ve never enjoyed tap-dancing so much! Sometimes there were elements of the modern thrown in which, from my points of view, I wasn’t as keen on when I was looking for the 1920s glamour. Overall, though, it was evident that every movement on that stage had been considered and purposefully crafted to an element of near perfection.

The magic and splendour of the original ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was definitely recaptured on stage at the Hippodrome to spectacular effect – if you have the chance, say good evening (and good morning!) to the musical as it sings through rain and shine!

 

Review: ‘The Lion King’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Have you ever sat in a theatre and had to resist the temptation to sing along? I hadn’t before ‘The Lion King’ – it’s so much fun and so colourfully beautiful that it’s hard not to be swept up in that classic Disney magic!

The singing and dancing was the best I had ever experienced – the creativity and passion that was going into every step and every word was exhilarating, and it was difficult to stop smiling throughout the performance because every minute was so enjoyable. A particular favourite of mine was when the singers, animal puppets and various ephemera came through the aisles – a definite benefit to stalls seating over balcony!

My favourite actors had to be Scar (Stephen Carlile) and Rafiki (Gugwana Dlamini). Scar was deliciously evil, and his voice was one part evil to one part seductive – you could definitely see why he’d been able to paw his way to the top without being challenge until the bitter end. Rafiki was hilarious; a bundle of energy that dispersed all moments of tension aptly in order to remind us that good will always triumph over evil. The rest of the cast were fabulous as well, although I’ll be honest, I don’t think this is a production you necessarily go to see for the acting: you go for the experience that is created before your very eyes, the experience of sophisticated puppetry, intense native singing and dancing, and the reminder of the beautiful moral that underpins ‘The Lion King’.

The puppetry is definitely the highlight of this show; some (like Timon) is fairly basic and what we’d expect; others, like the shadow puppets, the antelope prancing, the spinning birds, are magnificent. It’s still technology that we can see functioning, but there’s something wonderful about the effect it creates, of man and (puppet!) beast coming together to create the great circle of life. It’s as charming as it is exquisite.

There are still places left on the tour’s visit to the Birmingham Hippodrome and I urge you to live through this musical; it’s the mighty king of musicals, and everyone should hear it roar proudly!