As we were involved in a number of projects connected to the various Christmas shows in Birmingham and the West Midlands and also have a keen interest in theatre we saw quite a few productions this year. The two that stood out for artistic excellence for us were ’Sunflowers and Sheds’ in the studio (the Door) at Birmingham Rep and ‘Matilda’ at The Courtyard RSC. They were completely different in scale – ‘Sunflowers’ created for an audience of 150 max and ‘Matilda’ created for an audience of more than 700 and yet both had a simplicity and warmth which communicated and engaged. ’Sunflowers’ was originally a schools show developed in Rochdale by the respected M6 theatre company. It had a visual language which crossed age and language barriers and a simple but poignant story about two lonely people who shared a love for growing things. ’Matilda’ is of course one of Roald Dahl’s library of stories adapted with skill by Dennis Kelly and set to music by the very talented Tim Minchin. What lifted this production out of the norm was the direction and choreography on the simple but effective staging and the highly professional and slick performances by the very young (and not so young) cast. The Matilda I saw was outstanding – great casting.
Productions which we also enjoyed and will remember for a variety of reasons are ‘Secret Garden’ by Birmingham Rep and the Yorkshire Playhouse and ‘Dick Whittington’ by Birmingham Hippodrome. We heard a range of responses both good and bad about both these productions but as I was running workshops for both theatres I perhaps focused on what was interesting and could bring out too make the participants experience more illuminating. Secret Garden used the actors as both charactors and narrators and physicalised moments, something both I and the children I worked with enjoyed. The revolve, which some critics felt was over used, in my opinion helped with both the pace and theatrical style. The original songs were beautifully sang and added to the over all experience.
In contrast to the quite stark / geometric style of the Secret Garden set, Dick Whittington was a lavish production with costumes and sets reminiscent of the 1960’s traditional panto splendour. It’s star line up included Nigel Havers, Julian Clary and Hollywood star Joan Collins. As ever the strength of British variety showed through with Keith Harris showing why he is still able to draw the crowds (and gathering a whole new army of Orville and Cuddles fans). The one downside to having so much theatrical royalty, especially of the ‘queen’ variety was that Jeffery Holland was not the traditional garish ‘dame’, his part being watered down in so many ways (Julian Clary getting both the jokes and the traditional ever changing costume).
Joan Collins was in the difficult position of being a huge draw for one section of the community who revered her to the point that they found it difficult to boo her and on the other hand being a complete unknown for most people under the age of 25 (Nigel Haver’s recent appearances on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ prevented him suffering the same lull in audience participation). The story itself went so off plot that it forgot to come back to London and make Dick Lord Mayor of London but nobody seemed to notice (which is perhaps proof that not many people in the Midlands care what happens in London, even in fairy stories!!)
The two shows neither of which suffered from Gruffalo proportion appallingness and both of which had delightful moments in them but just didn’t quite pull it off in our eyes were ‘The Fireworkmaker’s Daughter’ by Birmingham Stage Co at the Old Rep and ‘Lost Happy Endings’ by Red Earth Theatre at Miidlands Arts Centre.
The Fireworkmaker’s daughter was interesting in that it had actor/musicians who had beautiful singing voices but some of whom didn’t really connect their words with what their characters were thinking or feeling and one had an awareness of adults playing children both of which detracted from our suspension of disbelief and engagement with the richness of the story. The ensemble worked well though and there were some really nice set pieces especially the pirate scenes.
I have enjoyed many of Birmingham Stage Company’s past shows including Skellig and Charlottes Web so perhaps this was just a middle tour matinee (although when you have paid £17.50 for the ticket you want everyone to be giving 100%).
Lost Happy Endings similarly but for different reasons was a little disappointing. Again a company I admire and visually the set was stunning, but somehow despite all the ingredients being there – good cast, sign supported, magical moments like the use of a pop up book and shadow puppets as a whole the didn’t quite hang together. This had been sold to schools I imagine without an interval and it may have worked better that way, or perhaps the interval should have been earlier but it felt like a number of detailed stories connected together. It may be that children didn’t pick up on this and certainly it was a visual feast but I wanted to be blown away by it and came away with more questions than answers.
None of us got to see Spamalot, which was a shame as Matthew Kelly is a Birmingham favourite but unfortunately with £3 booking fee per ticket and expensive tickets apart from the very back and sides the 3 of us who originally had decided to go felt that £9 to book on the internet was a charitable donation we would rather give elsewhere at Christmas.
The final show, which wasn’t a traditional Christmas show but the latest offering from Birmingham Actor/writer Dan Hagley (past shows being ‘Patrick and Bernadine’ and ‘Dinnerlady Man) was ‘Miriam on 34th Street’ at the Old Joint Stock. This was a show for adults which judging by the audience on the night we went will become a staple small scale Winter show in the region. Funny, touching and illuminating it followed Miriam as she travelled to New York to visit her son and his wife/baby. We laughed, we sighed and we left the theatre feeling that it was worth braving the sub zero temperatures and biting snow.
These comments are only our points of view and you are welcome to add your thoughts on any of the shows, particularly if you have a differing opinion.