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    Culture, Theatre

    Motown the Musical at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

    A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

    “All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere.” Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, Dancing in the Street is one of Motown’s signature songs, amongst the many well known classic released by the label and it was the song stuck in my head the entire journey home after the West End hit show, Motown the Musical.

    Inspired by the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Motown the Musical starts the story immediately before the 25th anniversary concert celebrating the birth of Motown.  Gordy is reluctant to attend, feeling betrayed by the artists he feels he made stars, only for them to leave him when better offers were on the table.  The audience is then transported back to see Gordy’s childhood, the impact of a conversation with his father, a few lost years before he ultimately manages to get enough money together to start his record label – and the birth of Motown.

    Whilst the musical might be loosely based on Gordy’s autobiography, it is clearly his personal interpretation of the past and doesn’t always give away a lot about the man himself.  His relationship with Diana Ross and subsequent break up is referenced, as is his feelings towards the artists he felt abandoned him.  But if you’re hoping for a theatrical biopic of his life, you’ll be disappointed.  But then again, that’s clearly not the point of the play – the audience is here for the songs.

    A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. (Opening 11-10-18) ©Tristram Kenton 10-18 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

    Motown the Musical is all about the music – as it should be.  There is simplistic, almost scant plot, which is not a criticism as it allows for a plethora of hit songs to be included without feeling forced.  There can be a tendency amongst similar plays to shoehorn in the songs to the narrative, which often feels clunky, but Motown resists doing this and the few songs that are used to drive the story forward feel fitting.  Instead, most of the songs are performed more naturally by the artists embodying the characters they play either as auditions or concerts, which allows the audience to really enjoy them.

    With over 50 songs credited in the musical, it would be impossible to include full length versions of all of them, but there is certainly something to suit everyone who is a fan of the record label.  One of the biggest cheers of the evening goes to the cover of the Jackson 5’s ABC, likely due to the admirable performance by the young actor playing Michael Jackson. Although it is perhaps the songs sung by Diana Ross and the Supremes which are consistently some of the best of the evening, thanks to a consistently strong performance by Karis Anderson.  Edward Baruwa as Berry Gordy does a lot with the character, drawing out more emotional depth that the story gives him and is responsible for a number of of the big numbers.

    For a musical which stays away from the more complex parts of the history of Motown it is not afraid to mention the issue of racism at the time.  It would be easy for the musical to gloss over the racial elements and discrimination faced by the artists but thankfully it doesn’t and references are made to the artists being defined by the colour of their skin, the problems with getting black artists on the radio and the segregation of audiences at the time. It is not a major part of the storyline, but an important point to the narrative of many of the figures during the time.

    Motown the Musical does exactly what it says; it provides hours of high energy Motown music, much to the delight of the audience. It is a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoyable to spend a few hours immersed in the sounds of the era.

    Motown the Musical is at the newly refurbished Alexandra Theatre from 11 October to 3 November, and tickets can be purchased here.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.

    Culture, Theatre

    Three Winters at The Old Rep Theatre

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    I can’t say I knew much about Three Winters before I showed up to the theatre, jogging up the road thanks to Birmingham’s Saturday early-evening traffic.  I try not to read much about a performance, be it theatre or film, before I go because I like to make my own mind up, and then read the reviews after.

    Three Winters, it turns out, is a play which takes place during three different winters; just after the Second Word War in 1945, during the Balkans war in the 1990s, and finally in contemporary Croatia in 2011.  Written by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić, premiering in London in 2014, the play takes place in a house in Zagreb, where Štivičić grew up and follows generations of the Kos family.

    Whilst the story is about the Kos family throughout the three time periods, it’s very much the women that are the central characters.  We first meet Rose King, who secures a home for her, her husband and their daughter Maša, in part of the house during the Communist era of the country.  In the 90s Maša has grown up and married to history-teacher husband Vlado, but still living in the house with their two young daughters.  With the 2011 scenes take place on the eve of Maša and Vlado’s youngest daughter Lucija’s wedding.

    Of the play itself, the narrative is slow to start as it introduces the elements of the story the play will weave together.  Growing up, the Balkans war was often something on the news but something my knowledge of is hazy.  So whilst the story works with little understanding of the time period, as a family drama through several generations, I do wonder if more historical context might add more richness to the audience’s understanding of the play.

    Produced and performed by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (final year students from what was formerly known as Birmingham School of Acting), there is little to show that this was not an entirely professional production of graduate actors.  The acting was strong and compelling and the use of projected images and music during the transitions added another layer of history to the stories of the family members.  For a play where two thirds of the eras take place just before or after war, it is a surprisingly funny play which elicits genuine and knowing laughter from the audience, often as a result of family dynamics, and delivered perfectly.

    I wasn’t overly sold on the dance performance piece at the beginning of the play, which may well be part of the original, although with the more celebratory dance at the end, it did add a sense of bookending the play.

    I can’t remember what made me book a ticket to see Three Winters at the Old Rep Theatre, but having enjoyed the production I will be checking out other shows by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

    Theatre

    Madagascar The Musical at the New Alexandra Theatre

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    Cynics would tell you that Madagascar the Musical is just an attempt to jump on board the success of another screen-to-stage animal adaptation. But here’s the thing: the much loved film translates well to stage and Madagascar the Musical is actually a lot of fun.

    In preparation, I watched the 2005 Dreamworks movie the night before, and Madagascar the Musical is faithful to the script, sanding off some of the edges to make a relatively short but lively theatrical show. If you don’t know the story, it’s a pretty simple one; Marty the zebra is fed up of life in a New York zoo and escapes to find some space, but before he can get very far, his friends Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo come to bring him back to the zoo. Sadly for them this doesn’t go to plan, and rather than be returned to the zoo they’re released back into the wild – or at least would be if their ship wasn’t hijacked by penguins and they end up in Madagascar. Life in the wild isn’t quite what these four pampered animal imagine, and they’re keen to get back to their old life, particularly before a starving Alex eats one of them.

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    With producers Selladoor Family condensing down the story, the theatrical version feels like much more of a foursome than the film. I don’t have a TV so I don’t really know how much of a draw, 2016 X Factor winner Matt Terry in the role of Alex the lion is, but it’s a solid performance which actually seems to tone down some of the melodramatic moments of the character’s counterpart, and actually allows for a stronger quartet of main characters than the film. Marty the zebra played by Antoine Murray-Straughan has a good chemistry with Matt Terry’s Alex and his energy is impressive, particularly in that padded costume. Actor and puppeteer Jamie Lee-Morgan plays the role of hypochondriac Melman the giraffe, which is skilfully done as he blends in the lankiest of the characters within the quartet. Timmika Ramsay has the strongest voice of the evening, and her performance of Gloria the hippo brings a sassy female touch to the four main characters.

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    And the penguins! They were my favourite characters from the film, and they’re just as entertaining in the musical, often the source of humour and plot development – be it throwing things off course or inspiring the break out at the beginning of the story. The penguins are puppets controlled beautifully by actors Shane McDaid, Laura Johnson, Jessica Niles, Victoria Boden and Matthew Pennington who each manage to give their penguin their own personality from behind the puppet. Whilst it might not have the grandeur of other animal-based productions, the casting is solid and seem to work well together.

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    The first act of Madagascar the Musical paces along nicely, but at times in the story feels a little rushed, particularly in the second half, where the Alex’s hunger and ejection from the tribe isn’t given much chance to affect the audience. But the chances of anyone in the audience not being familiar with the source material is slim and so the emotional resonance isn’t much of a requirement for a production that celebrates its whimsy. This is further enforced during Alex’s hunger, where he begins to hallucinate steaks and an eccentric song feels oddly consistent. Whilst Madagascar the movie might be aimed at children, the musical is careful not to ignore its adult audiences by feeding in some of the more mature jokes.

    And what of the infamous I Like to Move It song, which is performed in all films? Thankfully this is one of the scenes which makes it into Madagascar the Musical and it is by far the stand out song of the night. The hilarious King Julien, played by Jo Parsons, performs the now-infamous 90s song and it feels like being in one of the strangest raves ever. It is sublimely silly and wonderful and captivating – exactly what I was hoping for. And the second performance of it as an encore it even more well received.

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    Madagascar the Musical is a fast paced, high energy musical which combines the best of the film with a freshness on stage which is infectious. The story is a little thin on the ground, but that didn’t stop the film becoming a huge franchise and it’s a story which translates well from screen to stage. There’s plenty of good giggles and a lot of fun to be had at Madagascar the Musical.

    Move it move, down to see Madagascar the Musical at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 31 July – Saturday 4 August. Tickets can be purchased here.

    This was a press event. 

    Theatre

    Super Hamlet 64 at the Old Joint Stock

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    A one-person, physical theatre production that somehow blends live music, the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, and a raft of retro computer games sounds like one of those things you put together by drawing subjects out of a hat, and yet it works.  In fact, it’s almost delightfully hopeful towards the end.

    Theatre maker, poet and animator Edward Day has toured the traditional version of Hamlet, but here they’ve fused some classic retro games whereby characters which look suspiciously like everyone’s favourite Italian plumbers take on the role of the deceased King Hamlet and Uncle Claudius.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become split between Final Fantasy IV, Crash Bandicoot, Street Fighter II and Curse of Monkey Island.  There are Mortal Kombat ‘Fatalities’, zombies, deaths and do-overs – which come to think of it is more similar to the original source material than I thought at the time.

    It’s bonkers, but it’s brilliant in sparks created when you put two things together than you have no idea could work so well.  And it is so wonderfully made believable by Day, and their energy, scene shifts and musical interludes.  There’s a spot of audience participation in a full on death scene; one man launched himself onto the floor which surprised the actor but showed just how much fun everyone was having.

    Everyone knows Hamlet doesn’t end well, for, well anyone.  And yet the ending of Super Hamlet 64 manages to untangle and re-tangle the ideas of morality in the original play, and the nature of computer games. Super Hamlet 64 is absurdly honest and sweet, and a complete rollercoaster of a production which is clever, bonkers and brilliant.

    Super Hamlet 64 is on tour around the country, and back in our neck of the woods on 21 September at the Artrix in Bromsgrove.

    Theatre

    Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the New Alexandra Theatre

    IMG_6219-minLicensed for the first time in the musical’s history for performance by an amateur company, BMOS Musical Theatre Company’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was every bit as professional as some of the productions of seen on stage.

    Childhood classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of widowed oddball inventor Caractacus Potts and his children, Jeremy and Jemima Potts, who find out their beloved toy, an old racing car, is at risk of being sold off.

    Both a film and musical, based off the novel by Ian Flemming, of James Bond fame, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s plot can differ slightly. Nevertheless, it’s essentially the story widowed oddball inventor Caractacus Potts and his children, Jeremy and Jemima Potts, who restore their beloved toy, a previous European Grand Prix winner, and keep it out of the clutches of the tyrannical Baron of Vulgaria.

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    In BMOS Musical Theatre Company’s production, garage owner, Mr. Coggins is about to sell Chitty off for scrap but offers to sell it to the Potts family if Caractacus can find the money.  His invention of a whistling sweet fails to succeed in being sold to confectionary manufacturer Lord Scrumptious, despite the help of his daughter Truly Scrumptious.

    Instead, Caractacus sells one of his inventions at the local fair, buys the machine and fixes it up good as new – or better, the previous European Grand Prix can now fly.  But the villainous Baron of Vulgaria has his eyes on Chitty, and dispatches two spies to find and recover the vehicle.  Instead of kidnapping Caractacus, they manage to spirit away his father and the Potts family, joined by Truly, go off on a rescue mission.

    The more I think about it, the more I realise just how entirely ridiculous the story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is, but it also places it perfectly to be a proper night of escapism.

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    Dick Van Dyke plays the role of Caractacus in the 1960s film, but BMOS welcomes back stalwart James Gorfanifar for his fourth stint with the company in three separate decades.  He is every bit the Caractacus you would want, with an earnestness to play the main character of such a whimsical play.  Carys Wilson plays Truly Scrumptious equally well, putting with such a well-spoken English accent it’s a good job the Alex give us plastic cups, because it could cut glass. Daisy Green and Rui Greaves who played Jemima and Jeremy on the evening I saw it were superb and I look forward to seeing them in many more productions.

    There are some hiccups, like misbehaving dogs but the audience are so utterly bought into the charm of the play and BMOS’s production that no one seems to mind. In fact, the confidence to use live animals shows just how well put together BMOS Musical Theatre Company’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is.  The only real low point, and even calling it that is a stretch, is an overly long scene with the Child-catcher running through the audience.

    The rest of the production is superb, there is nothing amateurish about it and it’s easy to see why Birmingham’s oldest and largest amateur theatre company have had a long and successful history.  Long may it continue; BMOS Musical Theatre Company, you got me off my feet and put shaved off the jaded edges of a beaten down soul.  Well done.

    BMOS Musical Theatre Company’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang plays at the New Alexandra Theatre until 30 June – go see it. Tickets are available here.

    This was a press event. 

    Theatre

    Birdsong at New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

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    My A Level comparative literature module was on the topic of World War One literature, and so whilst very familiar with stories of The Great War, I had somehow managed to skip actually reading Sebastian Faulks’ seminal novel, Birdsong.  Most likely because I was busy fangirling over Wilfred Owen poetry.  But I knew the impact of Birdsong as a well respected portrayal of life in the trenches, and more aptly I knew it was a long novel.  So I was interested to see how Rachel Wagstaff’s highly acclaimed adaptation wold bring a weighty story, with even weightier subject matter to life on the stage.

    Jumping between different time periods, Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford (played by Tom Kay) as he leads his men from the trenches, raw from a passionate love affair which ends abruptly.  Through clever transitions from current to flashbacks, we see how Stephen, an Englishman in pre-war France, meets and falls in love with Isabelle Azaire, played by Madeleine Knight, whose film and tv credits include credits include Poldark and Florence Foster Jenkins. Kay and Knight are a compelling duo and their performances are faultless.

    Stephen’s story is weaved in with that of Jack Firebrace, played by Tim Treloar who is simply stunning.  Jack is an ex-miner digging the London Underground system who signs up to help the war effort because they pay is better.  His father-like role in the trenches and loyal friendship with Arthur (played by Simon Lloyd) forge stronger bonds which hurt all the more when they unravel.  Whilst most of the action may centre around Stephen, both his love and torment, the heart of the play belongs firmly to Jack, whose everyman character makes his easy to identify with in a world which is anything but.

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    Discarding the 1970s elements from the novel is a sensible decision, as the play is still packed full of story but at times still feels a bit clunky transitioning from the pre-war to war period.  This is remedied in the second half when the flashbacks catch up with wartime and the actions becomes more of split narrative, which is an impressive sight.

    There is no way a stage adaptation could recreated the horrors or World War One, nor would anyone want to see it fetishised, but the play does a fine example of addressing some of the darker elements sympathetically, but without glossing over the conditions of war – shell shock (known now as PTSD), suicide, absence from family life and the sheer futility of millions of people who lost their lives.  Well timed sound and lighting means that the audience never quite feels at ease,

    Birdsong certainly won’t be a play for everyone; it’s not a feel-good kind of show, but it’s a powerful, well told story adapted sensitively and certainly a memorable piece of theatre.  If you enjoy the nuances of a well told story or have even a passing interest in World War One, then this is a must see.

    Birdsong is at the New Alexandra Theatre until 23 June, which means you’ve got no England match excuses to miss it.  To buy tickets, visit the ATG website.

    This was a press event. 

    Theatre

    Summer Holiday at New Alexandra Theatre

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    Whilst a British summer can be decidedly unpredictable, the brand new stage musical version of Cliff Richard’s iconic film Summer Holiday is guaranteed to bring the warmth of summer and put a smile on your face.

    I grew up watching Summer Holiday, a favoured film of a childhood friend.  It is the story of Don, played originally by Cliff Richard, and his friends who are all London bus mechanics.  Low on money, the group want to escape the dreary shores of a gloomy British holiday for the south of France, but lack the funds.  Don convinces London Transport to lend the group an old red London bus, which they convert to a holiday home on wheels intending to drive it across Europe.  On route, they meet a girl group whose car has broken down, convincing them to re-route their holiday to Athens, and end up with a stowaway too, a famous female singer who is incognito as a young boy. It is silly, Shakespearean and perfect example of a bygone era.

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