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    Culture, Theatre

    Hair the Musical, Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

    HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director - Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting - Bem M Rogers, Choreographer - William Whelton, Designer - Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

    Sometimes you have to know when to admit defeat. After battling with a migraine since about 2am in the morning, and trying my best to do a day’s work, my colleague took pity on me / was sick of the sight of me (delete as appropriate) and told me to go home.  So instead of an evening catching up with a friend and going to see Hair the Musical at the Alexandra Theatre, I went home to bed.  Turns out this was probably a wise idea as the bright lights, big songs and colourful stage would probably not have done much for the monstrous headache I had.  Thankfully my friend Jo-ann was still able to go along, and she was kind enough to write up her thoughts.  So over to Jo-ann…

    So I agreed to attend Hair on a whim as I didn’t really know much about the show apart from the scandalous banning of it back in the day. I did some cursory research on the cast and saw it featured some X Factor contestants etc. I saw plenty of posters advertising this 50th anniversary touring show around town and was excited to see a modern take on the hippie generation.

    On taking my seat I was impressed by the set design and stage lighting. I certainly felt ready to go on a colourful trip back to the late 60s. The cast emerged onto the stage and the show began. From then to close it was a production full of song, colour inclusivity and hope.

    Hair

    Firstly we were introduced to Berger (Jake Quickenden) who charmed and enthralled the audience from the get go with his free-loving positive spirit. Through the various top tapping songs we meet other tribe members and learn about their entangled love lives and dilemmas.

    The ensemble cast whip their way through the songs with no off notes and dizzying dance routines. The set design adds to the counter culture vibe and successful ingrates the musicians into the production. It’s the songs that carry you through this show for sure.

    The cast interact with the audience throughout the show and this draws you into and at some points I feel like I’m under the influence. I thought I only knew one song but I was sorely mistaken as I found myself singing along to most of them, over the years they must have just seeped into my brain.

    The cast were all excellent but special shout outs to Woof (Bradley Judge), Jeanie (Alison Arnopp) and Dionne (Aiesha Pease) whose characters and voices really impressed.

    The underlying story is still relevant today particularly given Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests across the UK, but this is light hearted way to engage with some profound issues.

    The critically-acclaimed 50th anniversary production of Hair – The Musical is on at The Alexandra Theatre from Monday 29 April – Saturday 4 May 2019, with tickets available at atgtickets.com/birmingham

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Johan Persson.

    Culture, Theatre

    American Idiot the Musical at The Alexandra theatre

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_3106 copy

    Green Day never belonged to me, they were always my sister’s band. We were both pop-punk fans, but I never got Green Day in the way she did. I understood the impact of Dookie and started to warm up to them around the time of Warning, but American Idiot sealed it for me. It was strong, slick and full of stories. It was hardly surprising to me that it would be the album that would be a musical, especially given the whole “punk rock opera” moniker it was given, but I did wonder how it would play out.

    American Idiot the Musical kicks off with the titular song. It introduces the audience to a group of disaffected teenagers, fed up of the state of their country, mass media and the deal they’ve been dealt. During a series of songs from the album we learn that a trio of the group, Johnny, Will and Tunny are unhappy with their suburban lives, with Johnny’s revelation of a broken home and living in a world “that don’t believe in me” (Jesus of Suburbia). The trio plan to escape their lives, but on finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, Will stays at home, with Johnny and Tunny heading off to the city.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_1905 copy

    Struggling to adjust to urban life, Tunny enlists in the army and Johnny turns to drugs. Injecting heroin for the first time, we are introduced to Johnny’s alter-ego, St Jimmy, which gives him a new-found courage to talk to the girl he’s had a crush on. Meanwhile, Tunny is deployed to a war zone, and Will is struggling to adjust to life at home without his friends and the impending birth of his child, both needing relief from their situations. But for Johnny, things seem to be going well, at least temporarily; in a drug-fuelled haze he gets the girl, beds her and things seem to be going well. That is until St Jimmy and the drugs take over, and surpass the love he has for his girlfriend.

     

    Back in the army, Tunny, now an amputee, is being tended to by a nurse, known as Extraordinary Girl, who he eventually falls in love with. Will’s girlfriend has their child, and grows increasingly impatient with his loser lifestyle of drugs and lazing on the sofa. Johnny is descending into an increasingly drug-addled state and threatens his girlfriend Whatshername followed by himself. She leaves him and realising what he’s lost he gets clean and tries to get a desk job before realising it’s not for him and heading for the bus back home. Will, sees his girlfriend with her new rock-star boyfriend but eventually she and Will call a truce and he embraces his child. Tunny introduces them to Extraordinary Girl and it takes a while for Johnny to forgive him for leaving him for the army, but finally, the trio are reunited.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_2775American Idiot the Musical is a wonderful chaotic mess. The first fifteen minutes or so feel like an attempt to cram in as many of the higher octane songs as possible to set the scene; I liked the run through of songs but less so the toilet-humour antics, which just feel a bit like watching your parents try and pretend they know what teenagers are like. Thankfully the show seems to get it out of its system once the plot starts to appear. I mean sure, the plot is superficial but the split narrative about three young men who are all searching for meaning in their lives does work and particularly in the second half does have some touching moments.

    Waterloo Road’s Tom Milner as Johnny has the unenviable job of playing the link in the trio, dealing with the descent into drugs and the grittier side of Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals. It’s a hard thing to master and makes you realise just how skilled Green Day’s vocalist it, but Milner gives it heart. Perhaps the strongest performance of the night comes from local lad, West Brom’s own Joshua Dowen, who plays Tunny and delivers some of the most powerful vocal performances of the evening. Luke Friend, 2013’s X Factor third place runner-up, does a superb job playing the maniacal St Jimmy, the Fight Club style alter-ego who courts Johnny into the world of drugs and delusion.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_3517 copy

    Whether it is intentional that both Green Day and American Idiot the Musical are a trio of men, it does feel like the female characters are there less as characters and more as motivations for the male leads. But somehow, despite all the issues, I found myself absorbed in the story. Even the ending, cliched as it was, with Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) reworked so that it was more musical, got me. And maybe that’s the best way to think of it: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life.” And maybe American Idiot the Musical wasn’t the time of my life, but it left me feeling nostalgic and hopeful. And that’s not a bad way to leave a musical.

    American Idiot the Musical is on at the Alexandra Theatre from Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 April 2019. Tickets are available via the Alex’s website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Mark Dawson.

    Birmingham, Music and Movies

    3 Seconds Divorce at Impact Hub

    3 second divorce

    One of the things I really like about the events at Impact Hub is that they always introduce me to new ideas or new ways of thinking about things. 

    I’d heard about the three-times divorce (triple talaq) in Islam and hadn’t really given it much thought, mainly because I knew I didn’t understand enough about the context.  The screening of Shazia Javed’s 3 Seconds Divorce was, in some senses, what I thought might be what the three-times divorce might be if I was being pessimistic about it.  It was undeniably an emotional film and the story of the women who fought for what they believed in and for the protection of women in their country, a minority group within a minority group, showed a level of resilience that few would be hard pushed to be anything but impressed by.  Watching the documentary in a room that was mainly full of Muslim women and hearing their reactions to it felt like a real privilege at getting an instinctual reaction to the message of the film.  But that was only the beginning.

    The follow up panel was one of the most invigorating and educational I have been to in a while, and I don’t think I need to tell you how many talks I go to.  It was a shame Shazia had to dash off to get her train, but needs must, however I appreciated her input and it was great to hear more about the ideas and inspiration behind the documentary.  But the conversation between Dr Amra Bone and Dr Sabena Jameel was just superb.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I went away with some much new information presented in such an accessible way.  Lots of the topics covered, and there were so many, were things I’d heard lots about over the years but have never quite felt like I knew where to look for more information or unsure what was appropriate to ask.  Dr Jameel’s explanation of what she does as part of the Sharia Council, the system of Sharia rulings in general, the role of women in Islam, Islamic marriage and divorce, the cultural and religious understandings of triple talaq and probably a whole lot of other things I’ve forgotten to list was just phenomenal.  As someone that grew up in an Irish Catholic community, it was fascinating to compare and contrast the attitudes towards marriage and divorce, and hear not only from Dr Jameel as an academic and religious leader, but also some of the audience were kind enough to share their understandings of it, and answer some of the questions that I wasn’t brave enough to ask myself.

    I guess my feedback is just a really big congratulations, well done and heartfelt thank you for putting on an event that has given me so much more understanding than I thought possible from a few hours. I feel very honoured to have been welcomed into that space, able to watch the documentary, but also hearing from the speakers and members of the audience. A truly mentally stimulated evening which I gained a lot from.

    Culture, Theatre

    Avenue Q at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

    Avenue Q (Dress)-010

    Wildly and inappropriately fun yet heartfelt, Avenue Q is a must see musical that will have you laughing and singing unsuitable songs well after you’ve left the theatre.

    The musical charts the stories of the inhabitants of Avenue Q, just as newly graduated Princeton moves in.  Quite rightly wondering “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” (I’m still trying to work that one out), Princeton is bright-eyed but a little lost, as he meets his neighbours; closet gay Republican Rod and his slacker roommate Nicky; porn enthusiast Trekkie Monster; therapist Christmas Eve and her fiancé Brian; singleton teaching assistant Kate Monster; and Gary Coleman…yes, that Gary Coleman.

    Avenue Q (Dress)-066

    Sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill play until you realise some of the neighbours are human, some puppets and some, well, monsters.  Oh and of course there’s frequent visits from the bad decision bears, a duo who encourage some rather dubious actions.  Think a parody of Sesame Street, which goes rogue than last year’s disastrous movie flop The Happytime Murders (which was clearly going for an Avenue Q style, but fell far from the mark and felt more like a knock off from the market than anything else). 

    The puppeteers who play Princeton, Kate, Nicky, Trekkie, Rod and the Bad Idea Bears are visible right along side their puppet counterparts; rather than ruin the magic, being able to see the actor’s facial expressions just adds to the emotional weight of the story, particularly Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster and Tom Steedon’s Nicky.  It’s certainly worth watching the performances from the actor-puppeteers as much as it is the characters they’re performing with.

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    Sixteen years on from its first performance, the themes of Avenue Q feels just as fresh and relevant today as then – or at least since the first time I saw it a few years back.  Satire might be the life blood of Avenue Q, but the show has a lot of heart.  The musical tackles emotional subjects like racism, homosexuality and feeling a bit lost in the world with sincerity, whilst simultaneously making you laugh so much the muscles in your face hurt.

    The songs range from the hilarious through to the heartbreakingly emotional; “The More You Ruv Someone” is endearing and Saori Oda delivers a powerful performance, as does Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster in “There’s A Fine, Fine Line”.  There are also plenty of hilarious songs, including the earworm-friendly (and guaranteed to be stuck in your mind for days) “The Internet Is For Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”, the latter of which includes an x-rated puppet scene – child friendly, this show is not. But by god it’s a lot of fun.

    Avenue Q (Dress)-098

    Avenue Q is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 February 2019.  If you fancy an extra special Valentine’s Day, they’re doing an offer of two tickets for £40, plus a glass of Prosecco each (Bands A & B, 14 Feb only, must be booked in pairs), using the code: LOVEQ.  To book, visit the website https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/avenue-q/alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    Birmingham, Culture, Music and Movies

    Movies I watched in the cinema in 2018

    watching 100+ films in 2018 (1)

    After realising in June I would easily do 50 films at the cinema in 2018, I doubled it to 100.  And by the end of the year I’d seen 105 showings.

    There were some duplicates: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Avengers Infinity War (once in IMAX, once is 2D), and Crazy Rich Asians I saw twice each.  Three Billboards surprised me because I thought it was going to be one of those dreadfully worthy Oscar films, so I saw it early and thought it was great, so when a friend who couldn’t get to the cinema much wanted to see it again, I agreed.  Avengers Infinity War I could’ve left at one viewing but a friend wanted to see it in IMAX and it was certainly worth it for some of those epic views of Wakanda, but not a film that needs a second viewing.  And Crazy Rich Asians I had the chance to see on preview, and then with some friends who have Chinese heritage and I really wanted to hear what they felt about it – and I love a good romantic comedy, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to churn them out like they used to.

    And I didn’t just limit it to current Hollywood blockbusters, I also saw a rerelease of Heathers to mark its 30th anniversary, a showing of 2012’s Sightseers and a Q&A with actress Alice Lowe, and two black and white Christmas movies, The Shop Around the Corner and It’s A Wonderful Life.  Blue Brothers I saw as a surprise birthday celebration for Simon AKA Mr Brum Breakfast Club, and I finally saw the original The Italian Job, only it was accompanied by a live orchestra.

    cineworld

    I saw a few documentaries too: The Prince of Nothingwood; Can You Dig This and Syria’s Disappeared, both as part of Kopfkino held in Stirchley, which aims to show films to get you thinking; Invisible Women as part of SHOUT Festival; and the problematic Three Identical Strangers.

    There were a few non-English movies too, including Timecrimes aka Los Cronocrímenes, Indian comedy-drama Padman (which I adored), Love Sonia and Cycle as part of Birmingham Indian Film Festival (BIFF), A Prayer Before Dawn and Under the Tree as part of Shock & Gore festival, and the Japanese movie Shoplifters.

    I tried to make sure I put my money where my mouth is and see more films made by women, including In the Fade, Pin Cushion, Lady Bird, A Wrinkle in Time, Leave No Trace, The Butterfly Tree, The Spy Who Dumped Me and The Rider.

    I also spent a lot of time listening to podcasts, my favourite of which still remains Eavesdropping at the Movies. It’s locally recorded which means if I wasn’t already planning to see it, I can usually catch it on someone nearby.  Hosts Jose and Mike are clearly knowledgable about film, and they discuss the movie in depth without namedropping obscure films for the sake of it, and it feels like listening to two smart friends discussing the film on the way home. Because that’s pretty much what it is.

    Here is the whole list of all 105 films.

    electric

    What did I learn?

    Basically, I spent a lot of the time at the cinema, and a lot of time researching what was on.  I quickly came to realise that my Cineworld Unlimited card was excellent value for seeing all the big Hollywood blockbusters and very occasionally less well-known gem.  I wish they’d do more of that, both from a cost perspective for me, but also because it often feels like we don’t have a lot of places doing the less well known stuff.

    Thankfully we have the mac arts centre in Cannon Hill Park and the Electric Cinema, which meant that I got to see a lot of the films I’d heard about but weren’t exactly going to knock the latest superhero movie off from its multiple screening perch.  Thankfully finances allowed me to spend a lot more time at both of these, partly due to taking up offers like the concession costs at The Electric with my Independent Birmingham card, and the Screensaver deal at mac, which meant I bought a chunk of tickets in advance and had something to look forward to.  Because multiple trips to the cinema are expensive.

    Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 23.29.45

    What’s 2019’s movie challenge?

    Repeating the challenge feels a bit pointless, and upping the number feels a bit extreme.  Whilst I’m well on my way to watching a good amount of movies this year already, I spent a lot of time at the cinema last year at the expense of other things.  Having the challenge in 2018 made me spend a lot more time looking at what was on and I certainly want to keep doing that, because I saw some things I never would if I wasn’t actively looking.

    I want to continue exploring cinema beyond just the big blockbuster Hollywood films.  One thing I miss about the demise of video rental stores is seeing more foreign films, so I’m going to try and challenge myself to do that more (and regain the ability to watch a movie at home without getting distracted).

    I also want to try and hunt out more people doing interesting things in Birmingham.  I’m off to the first Stirchley Open Cinema screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (despite having seen it twice) to support them, and I’m going to try and make it along to more community film screenings like Journey Film Club and Birmingham Arthouse Cinema.

    I’m really exited about the CineQ Queer Film Festival coming up in March, and I’m still torn between getting a weekend pass or booking for individual screenings (mainly because I like to know I’ve got a seat before I show up).  And then of course there’s Flatpack Film Festival from 30th April – 5th May in my diary, and Cine-Excess and SHOUT Festival worth keeping an eye on too.

    I will be continuing to get good value from my Cineworld Unlimited card, and I intend to try and spend as many of my spare pounds at the mac and Electric as time / money will allow.

    Music and Movies

    Eavesdropping on a podcast

    eaves

    Having rediscovered podcasting a few months ago, there’s been one that I listen to fairly religiously.  Eavesdropping at the Movies does exactly as you’d expect, it’s like listening to two people who know movies, discuss what they’ve just seen with a

    I was delighted to be asked to join them to watch the fabulous Mildred Pierce movie, a 1940’s noir crime-drama starring Joan Crawford, which tells the story of the titular character who leaves her husband and raises their two daughters whilst trying to forge a path for herself.  Afterwards we recorded the podcast and you can listen to it on the Eavesdropping at the Movies website, or below via soundcloud.

    Birmingham, Culture

    Helga Henry in conversation with… Sindy Campbell

    helgasindy

    Whilst Ready Player One might not have been everyone’s hit film of the summer, there is no denying that the enthusiasm for seeing Birmingham on the big screen was one of the big draws for a lot of residents.  Brummies have Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham to thank for that, and bringing a lot more productions to a city which doesn’t always have the best reputation nationally.  But with the success of Peaky Blinders, and the talk around its creator Steven Knight building a studio in the city, are things looking up for film in Birmingham?

    Continuing a run of successful salon events, based on the seventeenth century tradition of gathering under one room to increase the knowledge of those in attendance through conversation, freelance facilitator and host Helga Henry is back with her third ‘Helga Henry in Conversation With’ event this year.  Previous guests includes property developer Anthony McCourt and TEDxBrum founder Anneka Deva.  Tonight, in the function room of 1000 Trades in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, Helga welcomed Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham to talk about the work she does bringing film to Birmingham.

    Sindy spoke about a lot of misconceptions that people might have about Film Birmingham, namely that they’re not responsible for funding films, but rather supporting filming in Birmingham and making sure shoots run smoothly.  She talked about how the initial disappointment and frustration of Channel Four choosing Leeds over Birmingham, but the silver lining being that some of the money allocated for that will stay in the region and might make its way back to local filmmakers.  Others expressed a disappointment in the hopes that a Channel Four HQ in Birmingham might’ve brought with it more development opportunities for professionals working within the film industry in the city, which had largely disappeared with the closure of organisations like Advantage West Midlands.

    Clearly the biggest thing for the city in terms of filming recently was this summer’s Ready Player One, where several scenes were filmed around Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter.  Sindy talked about the huge buzz it generated in the city, how people swarmed the sets and the pride people felt seeing their city on screen (even if we were the location of a dystopia).  Reconnaissance work was done months before Steven Spielberg arrived in the city, with his team flying in from LA to scope out locations.

    But it’s not just Ready Player One that’s put Birmingham on screen.  Films like The Girl with All the Gifts, the last three seasons of BBC drama Hustle and the first season of the superb Line of Duty were all filmed here too.  But perhaps Birmingham’s biggest success is one that has never actually filmed here: Peaky Blinders.  The impact of Peaky Blinders has been huge, with people all over the world watching the show thanks to Netflix and BBC Worldwide; Peaky Blinder tours, themed pub nights and stag do fancy dress have all appeared.  Sindy said she would love to have the series film in Birmingham, which was proposed at one point, but the main location requested, the Grand Ballroom, was undergoing refurbishment and wasn’t ready and to make it cost effective a second location would be required.

    Which of course, this brought us onto the news that Steven Knight, Writer and Creator of Peaky Blinders announced plans to open a six-stage TV and film studio, called Mercian Studios.  Helga mentioned that a previous In Conversation With speaker, Anthony McCourt had talked about how quickly big spaces are being snapped up, as Birmingham seems to have no end of appetite for one / two bed apartments in the city.  But the news that a large studio would be coming to the area has been well received, particularly as Sindy spoke about the massive shortage of studio space and build space in the country, but particularly around Birmingham.

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    She also talked about the huge economic impact having a hit series in the area could have to the city, not just for the tourism industry, but also for the hospitality industry and catering who support a large-scale production, and are often sourced locally.  Sindy talked about the impact Game of Thrones had on Belfast, almost growing a film production industry overnight; the hope would be that something similar could happen to Birmingham.  And that the large number of industry professionals who live in Birmingham may no longer have to travel the length and breadth of the country for work, as there would be more closer to home.

    As the event started to wrap up, the conversation turned to looking at what can be done to support Sindy and Film Birmingham, which is really punching above its weight in terms of what it delivers.  Inevitably the question about what the city council’s responsibility is, compared to other cities where arts and culture are given more focus and councils are more willing to take a risk, but it was rightly it was pointed out that they have a lot going on at the moment but both Helga and Sindy pointed out that it is easy to blame others, but instead of us thinking what’s the answer, should we just get on and do something.  Helga suggested that people are already producing things without the big names like Channel Four, mentioning local YouTubers with large follower numbers and the rise of the popularity of podcasts.

    There was also a look at how the city might use what it already has to improve, with Julia from Rebel Uncut talking about the need to have super connectors in Birmingham linking up organisations and people which could have a mutual benefit, like writers and producers.  This isn’t rocket science, and is often mentioned, but is a perennial problem Birmingham faces: a lack of communication.  However, there was a sense that for the filmmakers that do make it to Birmingham, people love it when they get here.  The challenge is just to get here.

    The next ‘Helga Henry in Conversation with…’ is scheduled for 23 January.  The speakers hasn’t yet been announced, but if it’s as insightful and eye-opening as the session with Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham, it’ll be well worth attending.  To find out more, keep an eye on Helga’s website https://helgahenry.com/