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    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 times 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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    The stage play does divert from the movie somewhat, clearing up some geographical quirks and includes a number of Cliff Richard’s back catalogue, such as In the Country, Summer Holiday, Travellin’ Light, Bachelor Boy, Move It, Living Doll, The Young Ones and On the Beach, some of which are not from the original film, but thread in well.

    2006 X Factor runner up Ray Quinn plays the role of Don, or rather plays the role of Cliff Richard playing the role of Don.  With a role so associated with Richards, this is clearly a winning move, with Quinn adopting some of Richard’s mannerisms and breathier song-notes, well received by the audience.  The trio of Billy Roberts, Joe Goldie, and Rory Maguire play Don’s workmates and friends, paired with girl group Do-Re-Mi, played by Gabby Antrobus, Alice Baker, and Laura Marie Benson.  Both trios bounce off each other well, offering playful antics and light summer romances.

    Whilst the play doesn’t have traditional villains, songwriter, actor, broadcaster and television presenter Bobby Crush and stage-star Taryn Sudding play the almost pantomimic characters of the hapless agenda and controlling fame-hungry mother.  Whilst the play is very much on the sunnier side of summer, they offer more light-relief and comedic moments, pushing along the story with a series of half-hearted attempts to thwart the bus dwellers making their way through Europe.

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    The audience is clearly more people who remember the original film or fans of Ray Quinn, and the production stays true to this.  In an era where a broken-down car would be replaced by an Uber, a runaway starlet quickly snapped on social media and more red-tape than the bus itself, it stays true to the spirit of the sixties, which being self-aware enough to poke up at stereotypes of characters.  Sure, Living Doll remains one of those songs I can quite believe exists, but in such a summery stage play, it’s easy to forget.

    Summer Holiday is one of those feel-good plays that will have you smiling and your gran dancing in the aisles.

    It’s on from 12 – 16 June at the New Alexandra Theatre on Suffolk Street in Birmingham. Tickets are available here.

    Theatre

    Legally Blonde The Musical at New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

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    Oh My God, Oh My God, You Guys…after seeing Legally Blonde The Musical you will almost certainly find yourself singing tunes from the show.  It’s the sort of feel good show that will have you grinning and dancing in your chair.

    If you’re familiar with the 2001 film with the same title (although it was actually based on a book, who knew), you’ll be familiar with the story.  There are a few minor changes, but it is essentially the same story, and same heart-warming silliness that will completely win you over.

    The main role of Delta Nu sorority president Elle Woods is played by Lucie Jones, who represented the UK at the 2017 Eurovision contest and was a finalist in the X Factor.  The power of her voice is undeniably superb, but at times it felt like she was trying to less Elle Woods and more Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods – understandable because the film star is iconic in the role and the medium of film allows for a more nuanced portrayal.  There is clearly a lot of inspiration taken from the film, which adds a familiarity that boosts the enjoyment.

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    It’s Elle’s split with Warner Huntington III, which creates a catalyst for her to study hard, pass the LSATs and head to Harvard Law to follow Warner and win him back.  Unlike the movie version, Liam Doyle’s Warner is portrayed with more complexity as a character helpless to the future mapped out for him.  But once Elle arrives at Harvard, she realises that it might not be as simple as she thought, thanks to a Machiavellian Professor Callahan, played superbly by Emmerdale and Coronation Street alumnus Bill Ward. Her classmates also pose a problem, namely Vivienne Kensington, played by Laura Harrison, a rival of Elle’s both at school and for Warner’s affections.

    But Elle is supported by love interest Emmett Forrest, played by David Barrett as a quiet, studious and slightly geeky outsider who empathises with Elle and helps encourage her. Emmett and Elle’s budding romance also provides some of the more tender scenes, particularly in songs like Chip on My Shoulder.  Elle also develops a strong friendship with beauty salon owner Paulette Bonafonte, played by Ex-Eastenders actress Rita Simons, who stole numerous scenes and whose rich, soulful voice was an absolute pleasure to listen to. Simons’ comic timing, particularly with her own love interest Kyle B O’Boyle, has the audience in stitches, particularly when it comes to her fascination with Irishmen.

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    The first act suffers from a little too much set up for the story, but allows the second act to really shine.  Here the story unfolds and the songs become infectious. Despite everyone in the audience knowing how the story would pan out, there’s a real sense of joy at the happy ever after.  The show is full of laughs throughout, both in the action and the songs.  “Bend and Snap” is understandably an audience favourite, but the stand out songs for the night were “Omigod You Guys” and “Legally blonde Remix”.

    At times I did wonder how well the story had aged for a modern audience, but consideration seems to have been given to this.  Sure, the gay and lesbian characters are pretty stereotypical and out of context “There! Right There! (Gay or European?)” could feel a little uncomfortable; within the context of the show it feels like another layer of questioning judgements on how someone looks or acts, which is pretty much the point of the show.  The inclusion of the LGBT rainbow flag feels celebratory, and is a nice touch as Birmingham gets ready to celebrate Gay Pride Weekend.

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    Legally Blonde The Musical is an enjoyable, uplifting piece of theatre which will have you wanting to dance your way home.  The actors are strong and their voices even more so, and whilst the film might be familiar, (lets face it, it was always an obvious ending), you will find yourself enchanted by Elle Woods.

    Legally Blonde The Musical is showing at the New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham from 21 – 26 May. Tickets are available from the venue’s website here.

    This was a press event. 

    Theatre

    Love From A Stranger at the New Alexandra Theatre

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    A women dissatisfied with her life, meets a stranger and begins a whirlwind romance.  But how much can you really know about someone you’ve just met?  This is a question posed by Love From A Stranger, a play based on a short story by the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie.

    After winning a substantial amount of money and waiting on the return of her fiancé, Cecily Harrington’s (Helen Bradbury) life is in flux, when a charming stranger who comes to rent her flat instead sweeps her off her feet.  Despite protestations from her best friend and meddling aunt, Cecily marries the man, Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), and they relocate to a secluded cottage.  But the more Cecily gets to know Bruce, the more she realises she may not know him all the well at all. And with her loved ones so far away, and no phone in the house, who can she call on to sooth her fears?

    Agatha Christie’s work has a reputation for killing off characters, but Love From a Stranger makes the story more about mystery than murder.  The audience know it’s coming, but when – and who?  This is an eerie play which makes the audience work for the who-done-it and almost pulls the rug from underneath them.  Like modern procedural dramas, the play is peppered with nuggets of what might be to come, giving clues piece by piece as to what might be about to happen.  The first time the audience meets Bruce he is spotted just off to the side of the stage taking photos – there’s a slight glimpse of a peeping tom, something which is further hinted at when the couple relocate to the cottage.  But the notes in his mysterious book full of codes (or are they), his insistence of solitude for the newlyweds and sitting at the top of the stairs spying on Cecily.

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    Whilst Sam Frenchum’s Bruce is the mysterious and temperamental villain, pulling his wife away from everyone she knows and reacting quickly and angrily, it’s Cecily who the audience is rooting for.  She could easily be portrayed as a character too docile and naïve, director Lucy Bailey and actress Helen Bradbury portray her as a more complex woman who simply wants more out of life.

    Love From A Stranger manages to build suspense and mystery impressively, something which can’t be easy in a large theatre.  Whilst there are two main sets, the first being Cecil and Mavis’ (Alice Haig) flat, the second act’s being the secluded cottage, pieces of the set shift to give a different perspective and allow the story to move on, but the displacement builds a sense of unease.  The use of light and sound between scene changes continues to build the tension further, making the audience jump and wonder what is coming next.

    Director Lucy Bailey has relocated the action to the 1950s, which makes for some lovely period costumes, and balances the turmoil of an increasing sense of freedom for women, whilst still being shackled by duty.  Though the clipped accented voices feel a bit old fashioned, even for the time period, the place manages to remain incredibly relevant; in an age of internet dating, I wonder what would become of Cecily and Bruce?

    Love From A Stranger is a carefully paced play which slowly builds the tension, allowing it to creep into the audience’s bones, building a crescendo, ready for the explosive ending.

    Love from a Stranger is at New Alexandra Theatre on Suffolk Street until Saturday 19th May.  To purchase tickets, visit: atgtickets.com/shows/agatha-christies-love-from-a-stranger/new-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    This was a press event. Photographs were taken by Shelia Burnett.

    Theatre

    Fat Friends the Musical at New Alexandra Theatre

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    Fat Friends the Musical is a feel-good play with plenty of belly laughs. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

    Reuniting the characters from Kay Mellor’s hit TV show, Fat Friends follows the struggles of a group of overweight friends who attend a slimming club based in Headingley, a suburb of Leeds.  Kelly has a larger-than-life personality but is struggling to fit into her dream wedding dress, lovelorn group leader Lauren is trying to find the man of her dreams, whilst Kelly’s father Fergus is just trying to keep the family chip shop open.

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    Theatre

    Rotterdam at Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

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    Alice is about to click send on an email to her parents to tell them she’s a lesbian, when her partner of seven years, Fiona, reveals that she has always thought she were a man and now wants to start living as one, as Adrian.

    As Adrian begins his transition, Alice wants to be supportive but is conflicted what this means for her: is she still a lesbian if she is in a relationship with Adrian, does she want to be in a relationship with him, and what about her work colleague Lelani? And what does this mean for Josh, Adrian’s older brother and Alice’s ex; will he finally move on from his own heartache at losing his girlfriend to his own sibling?

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    Theatre

    Testosterone at mac Birmingham

    image1Trans identity seems to be very much in the public eye at the moment, but a lot of the stories in mainstream media seem to be focused on the stories of trans women.  The role of the trans man, whether it’s less glamorous or perhaps more hidden, is one that seems to have been somewhat downplayed.  But Rhum and Clay in collaboration with Kit Redstone’s British Council Showcase  play Testosterone is less a play about trans identity and more a play about what it is to be a man, seen uniquely though the eyes of someone who has been watching, and wondering, how to be a man most of his life.

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