Coppelia – Shimmering, Sparkling and Super Fun

The Birmingham Royal Ballet summer season began in Birmingham on Tuesday evening with the opening at the Hippodrome of  the ever charming Coppelia. Once again, the BRB showed why they are one of the world’s greatest ballet company’s with a production that showed that ballet can be funny as well as graceful.

The story of Coppelia is one full of humour and deception, featuring the aged old love triangle between a boy,a girl and a wooden doll. Of course, the village Lothario Franz doesn’t realise that the new object of his lust, the beautiful lady who sits on the balcony of Dr Coppelius,  quietly reading her book, is a wooden doll. Nor does the lovely Swanilda realise that the rather aloof Coppelia, who she tries to chat too from the town square, isn’t real. Hence, when she finds the key to Dr Coppelius’s house and workshop, she wants to take a closer look at the girl for herself. Franz is also curious about the lovely (albeit slightly wooden) young lady, and uses a ladder to enter the workshop. All chaos ensues when Dr Coppelius arrives back and discovers Franz in his home. Could the soul of the young man help transform his beautiful Coppelia into a real girl?

There was much to enjoy in this performance of Coppelia. Nao Sakuma is a charming heroine, her masquerade as the living doll is just sublime, and she turns out to be the heroine of the piece, rescuing the frankly undeserving Franz from Dr Coppelius and his book of spells. The set piece when Swanilda and her friends creep into the rather spooky workshop is very funny, the ballet moves perfectly mimicking the creeping actions of the girls, and I love the ballerina at the end of the line, so frightened she is almost bent double lest she see anything that scares her. Franz, as played by Joseph Caley, is lusty and red-blooded, the perfect hero of the piece, although you almost wish that Swanilda could kick him into touch – he doesn’t exactly treat his betrothed well, despite the ringing from the ear of corn.

The sets are beautiful, evoking Eastern European architecture in the village scene and the Duke’s mansion, whilst the costumes really add to the spectacle, particularly in the vibrant reds and greens of the opening scenes. I loved the slightly garish, sensuous costume worn by the Gypsy girl (Victoria Marr) who seems intent and also leading Franz away from his beloved, all ribbons and sashes everywhere. And, of course, the music soars across the theatre, those instantly recognisable compositions by Leo Delibes that prove the perfect backdrop to all the dances.

Coppelia is a dream – a gorgeous, frothy and enchanting production that is just the perfect entertainment for a Summer’s evening. Love prevails and everyone is happy at the end of the day – what more could you wish for?

Coppelia is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 17th June. Click here for details.

Dirty Dancing At The New Alex Theatre

Top five chick flicks of all time? If you ask anyone who was a teenager in 1987 they will surely have Dirty Dancing as their number one choice. The coming of age story of Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, an idealistic young woman who finds her beliefs and hopes tested when she takes a Summer holiday at Kellermans family resort. However she also meets the enigmatic, sexy Johnny Castle when she has to cover for his pregnant dancing partner Penny. They fall in love, but Johnny is certainly from the wrong side of the tracks and is not going to be the choice of her doctor father. Dirty Dancing is one of those feelgood films where you know everything will be sorted by the final scene, but it is none the worse for it.

The stage musical version of this iconic film arrived at the New Alex Theatre in Birmingham last night, whisking the audience off to the Summer of 1963, just before Beatlemania took over the world and it changed forever. The stage show is just as melodic and hypnotic as the film, and with all those famous lines in place (I carried a watermelon, nobody puts Baby in a corner) it is as fun, frothy and quotable as ever.

Dirty Dancing is all about those leads, and Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey are hard shoes to fill, but in Katie Eccles and Robert Colvin, who was stepping in for Lewis Griffiths we have the perfect Baby and Johnny. Katie is great as the idealistic Baby, particularly in those early dancing scenes where her unease and awkwardness make her efforts both poignant and funny. Her later skills show Katie to be a great dancer, particularly during that final scene. Robert is brilliant as Johnny, his playing of the mean and moody dancer is both virile and brooding and his physicality is perfect for the role. It doesn’t hurt matters that he is gorgeous, and with the walk and the physical strength he compares very favourably to Patrick Swayze in the role. He also, in the final scenes, looks like he is really enjoying himself in the role, and this is just infectious.

Penny is played by the outstanding Carlie Miller, her dancing impeccable and her elegance, illustrated best by her amazing legs, with which she performs a range of kicks and moves without breaking a sweat. The hilarious Lizzie Ottley brings the silly, vacuous Lisa Houseman to life with a passion, especially when performing her show tune in the most tuneless of ways, providing one of the comedy highlights of the night. Comedic value is also added by Greg Fossard as the annoying Neil Kellerman, a nerd with a nice range of chat up lines, whilst Sophia Mackay and Michael Kent, as Elizabeth and Billy provide the musical highlights.

The staging is uniformly excellent, with the revolving scenery providing brilliant backdrops that really take you to the Catskills. And, of course, those musical classics from the likes of Otis Reading and Solomon Burke still have the power to soar. Dirty Dancing is entertaining from start to finish, if you love the classic film, you will love this faithful adaptation.

Dirty Dancing

New Alex Theatre

Wed 31 May – Sat 03 June

Click here for ticket information

Behind the Scenes at Billy Elliot

Last Friday I was invited to go behind the scenes at the Birmingham Hippodrome to have a look at what goes on backstage at the musical Billy Elliot. Actor Scott Garnham, who plays Tony in the stage production, took us on a tour of the set and backstage areas so we could really get a feel of the hustle and bustle that goes into making a hit musical. The props, the wigs, the sets and the ballet tutus and riot shields were all there, making it a very exciting experience.

Control centre backstage

Billy Elliot is a big musical in more ways than one. It has a large cast, and large production set pieces, which call for a large space, both in terms of stage and backstage. The Hippodrome is truly enormous backstage, making it probably the only theatre in Birmingham that could accomodate such a big production. Scott explained that the touring production has had to use big theatres in towns and cities across the UK, and, in most cases, the theatres used were the only ones that were big enough in each place. The large cast calls for lots of dressing rooms, and enough space backstage for mass costume changes, special areas had been created to house items like the tutu’s used in the last musical number, and for the rows of riot shields, an enormous canister of dry ice dominates one corner of backstage. Billy Elliot is a musical on a grand scale, and the space needs to reflect that.

It is surreal to look around the backstage area. The fact that when you look in the air you are faced with an  enormous Maggie Thatcher looking back at you makes this no ordinary experience. There are two separate dressing areas – one for adults and one for the children, as well as an area full of wigs. Miners helmets and tutus are everywhere, highlighting the two themes of the musical, and there are boxes and boxes of props, including a box full of rather evil looking Thatcher puppets. Another surreal aspects are the fantastic giant costumes that are lowered onto the wearer at the very last minute, and hang suspended backstage, almost dancing in the breeze.

The backstage tour highlighted some of the magical tricks of live theatre. The sets work on hydrolics, Scott explained that even when it looks like members of the cast might be pushing the sets, they aren’t. There is a booth backstage for adding extra vocals and voices to production numbers where those voices are heard, but not seen. Microphones are added to trousers to make the sound of dance steps, particular tap steps, loud and clear from the stage. The iron bars used by the miners, covered in newspaper, which look so sinister on the stage, are actually fairly soft rubber when you remove the paper. Billy Elliot is a magical experience, and it was interesting to see just how some of that magic is created.

I will be posting later in the week the second part of my Billy Elliot experience, a chat with Jeroen Luiten the Resident Choreographer.

Wed 29 Mar – Sat 29 Apr

Click here for ticket and show information.