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Nicolette Fraillon, The Australian Ballet's music director and chief conductor who will conduct the opening night of  The Nutcracker, in front of Sir Peter Wright, celebrating his 90th birthday, who created the ballet as BRB's gift to Birmingham 26 Christmas's ago

YOU know Christmas is on its way as soon as Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker dances into Birmingham Hippodrome – a production which this year will see its 500th performance.

Sir Peter Wright created his celebrated ballet for Christmas 1990 as a gift to the city when Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet moved from London and into their new home in Thorp Street, next to Birmingham Hippodrome, becoming Birmingham Royal Ballet.

His gift is now universally acclaimed as one the world’s finest productions of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet and on Friday, 25 November, Sir Peter will celebrate his 90th birthday by joining the opening night audience for his masterwork.

And wielding the baton for opening night will be renowned conductor Nicolette Fraillon, Music Director and Chief Conductor of The Australian Ballet - the world's only woman music director of a ballet company incidentally.

She will be conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia for ten of the 26 Birmingham performances and is a former Chief Conductor with the National ballet of the Netherlands. She has worked with renowned choreographers such as Hans van Manen, Rudi van Dantzig and Krzystof Pastor and she returned to her home country as Director of the Australian National University’s School of Music in 1998, moving to The Australian Ballet in 2002, conducting all their programmes both at home and tour.

She has been a guest conductor with other leading ballet companies including San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet as well as BRB. 

John Beadle, Orchestra Director for the Royal Ballet Sinfonia said: “It’s a huge pleasure to welcome Nicolette back to the UK and to Birmingham in particular. We have had a long and fruitful relationship with The Australian Ballet and Nicolette is an exciting and inspiring conductor. I am really happy that UK audiences will be able to experience her talent in possibly the world’s best version of this classic Christmas ballet.”

BRB Artistic Director David Bintley added: “Nicolette is one of the world’s best conductors for ballet and it’s a thrill to have her here at Birmingham Royal Ballet. Sir Peter’s Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is rightly held up by critics and the public alike as one of the best ever produced, born out by the fact that this is its 26th year and I can’t think of a better way of celebrating Sir Peter’s 90th birthday on opening night that having Nicolette wielding the baton.”

The Nutcracker celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and this year, at an inauspicious matinee performance on Tuesday, 29 November, it will celebrate its 500th performance – a quite remarkable achivement. Twenty six years on it has become a Christmas treat and tradition for many, with some of the children brought to those opening performances now bringing their own children.

And its popularity is undiminished. In the run up to opening night, The Nutcracker has recorded one of its biggest ever years for ticket sales and looks set to be the most commercially successful production in a generation.

Twenty six years on it is still a spectacular, big budget production with sumptuous designs by John Macfarlane and its hallmark stunning special effect of the growing Christmas tree which still brings gasps of delight. A timeless delight which has become part of the tradition of Christmas.

Incidentally, tickets for the 2017 production of The Nutcracker will go on general sale at 10.00 on Friday 25th November 2016

The Nutcracker runs at Birmingham Hippodrome from 25 November to 13 December.

Roger Clarke 

Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

Mention Sun Records and people think Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll - but Sam Phillips? That’s another story.

But Phillips was Sun records, a virtual one-man band who had founded the label in Memphis, Tennessee, and who had launched the careers of King of the Blues B B King, blues and soul legend Howlin’ Wolf and country star Charlie Rich among others.

Yet more was to come as Philips started Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis on the road to stardom following up that million dollar quartet with Roy Orbison.

And that is what they were, a million dollar quartet. On 4 December 1956 Phillips had brought Perkins into the to try a new song and was hoping to use new arrival Jerry Lee Lewis on the backing. Elvis, who by then had left Sun for RCA, was calling by the studios, so Phillips called Cash into the studio which ends in a jamin session by rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

There are clashes between Perkins and Presley, and Perkins and Lewis, and Lewis and . . . well about anybody. That boy had . . . issues.

And that is the story of Million Dollar Quartet which opens at Malvern Theatres on 17 Oct and then rocks into Birmingham Hippodrome for a week on 24 Oct.

Phillips is played by Jason Donovan who talks about the show and his role.

Former King Edward’s Camp Hill pupil Matt Wycliffe from Kings Heath, Birmingham, has an impressive West End CV from Outspan Foster in The Commitments, Bob Guadio in Jersey Boys and Buddy in The Buddy Holly Story. He might really be a piano player but plays a mean guitar as Carl Perkins, and he is talking here about the role.

Johnny Cash is played by Robbie Durham), Jerry Lee Lewis by Martin Kaye  and Elvis Presley  by Ross William Wild, along with Presley's girlfriend Dyanne played by Katie Rae.

The first thing that strikes you about the musical is the gifted musicianship. Forget Simon Cowell, if you really want to see that Britain truly does have talent, just watch this show. The quartet are live and brilliant and playing in the style of the people they are portraying. Martin Kaye, incidentally, is like Jerry Lee Lewis on speed – the piano probably needs to cool down at the end of each show.

The show is packed with early numbers from the quartet, 23 of them, starting with Blue Suede Shoes and ending with a everyone on their feet singalong. Not that this is just another jukebox musical, the songs serve a purpose and there is a story to tell.

We talked to the cast at the Theatre Royal Nottingham and below are a couple of jamming sessions, with Matt on electric guitar and Martin on Piano and a number from the Show, Down by the Riverside.

It will give you a taste of show full of good music, nostalgia and brimming over with feelgood factor and great balls of fire.

Roger Clarke

Matt Wycliffe has just released an eponymous CD on which he plays all the instruments with songs ranging from Dream to Madonna.

Million Dollar Quartet:

Malvern Theatres – or 01684 892277. 17-22 Oct

Birmingham Hippodrome or 0844 338 5000 24-29 Oct




kiss me kate
Petrucio and Katharine,  sung by Quirijn de Lang and Jeni Bern

Kiss Me Kate

WELSH National Opera are no strangers to the Birmingham Hippodrome. With each season, they grace us with wonderful performances, from the great operatic classics to modern versions of operas and, more recently, musicals such as last year’s five star Sweeney Todd.

The company celebrated their Seventieth anniversary this year and bought In Parenthesis and Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci to Birmingham. It received Four and a half stars from the Arras.

This is a dynamic and forward thinking company. Their outreach programmes show a pride and belief that opera is for all. Their ‘Under 30s’ ticket offer allows young audience members the option to purchase tickets at £5 per performance. This is only one example of their work with the wider community. 

Within their current touring season, WNO’s production of Kiss Me Kate will grace the Birmingham Hippodrome stage from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th November, as part of their Shakespeare400 season. It is an operatic tribute to the anniversary of the Bard’s death.

 The season contains a trilogy of Shakespearean performances with Verdi’s Macbeth, the UK premiere of Polish composer André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice and Kiss me Kate, Cole Porter’s Broadway take on The Taming of The Shrew.And in Cole Porter’s classic WNO show that their expertise extends to all musical genres. Kiss Me Kate arrived on Broadway in 1948, Cole Porter’s response to Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! five years earlier which had advanced the idea of a book musical where words, lyrics and music were all used to advance the plot.

It was the Golden Era of musicals and director Jo Davies produces a marvellous, witty and outright magical performance. 

Cole Porter’s work is a genius tribute to Shakespeare’s play with a solid plot in a book by Samuel and Bella Spewack that directly parallels Shakespeare’s comedy. The clever interweaving of its own story with Shakespeare’s tale catapults his work into the modern day and educates the audience about one of Shakespeare’s most controversial works. The production is a play within a play that takes place backstage during a production of The Taming of The Shrew, a sort of Shakespearean Noises Off.

Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi are a fierce divorced couple who happen to be cast as the principle roles of Katharine and Petrucio. Quirijn de Lang and Jeni Bern pay homage to the conflicting struggle between gender and fiery personality and are both excellent in both their roles.

Colin Richmond’s design is a fantastic view into the world that the audience never see, but are probably itching to get a glimpse of. Cleverly, the essence of backstage chaos is now in full view of audience with a set of wooden flats, dressing room tables and costume rails. Excellent choreography from Will Tucker is the shining light to the mad and wonderful panic that reveals the secret to the audience. Beautiful choral numbers such as Another opnin, another show, Too darn hot and of course Brush up your Shakespeare are sure to instantly lift up moods and are performed perfectly.

With Kiss Me Kate the audience have the best of both worlds, as we see both the play being performed, as well as the backstage action, giving way to hilarious moments of playfulness and teasing. Davies is not afraid to highlight Shakespeare’s more fruitful humour, as is particularly highlighted in the song Tom, Dick or Harry.

I saw this production at Bristol Hippodrome and it is a fantastic addition to WNO’s Shakepseare400, a wonderful example of musical theatre at its best. WNO know exactly how to entertain and most importantly, they understand how to make all audiences feel welcome in the world of opera.

Elizabeth Halpin

Kiss Me Kate runs at Bristol Hippodrome to 15 October and will be at Birmingham Hippodrome 10-12 November.

The Merchant of Venice is at the hippodrome 8 Nov with Macbeth 9 Nov.

Box office 0844 338 5000, HIPPODROME

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Mandela Trilogy
Cape Town Opera
Birmingham Hippodrome
20-21 September

Elizabeth Halpin has been to the Royal Festival Hall to see Cape Town Opera’s stunning production of the Mandela Trilogy which is coming to Birmingham Hippodrome on 20 September.

THE internationally renowned Cape Town Opera with Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra are heading to Birmingham Hippodrome later this month with Mandela Trilogy.

This will be their third visit after their acclaimed productions of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 2012 and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat in July 2014, both receiving five stars from Behind The Arras.

Mandela Trilogy is a moving operatic tribute to the man who so fought long and hard against the desperately against apartheid, the official policy of institutionalised racisim brought in by the Afrikaner dominated National Party after winning the 1948 General Election.

Black people were barely second class citizens and in 1970 lost even that dubious honour, being denied political representation and even citizenship, becoming instead forced citizens of 10 tribal homlands.

And through it all, including 27 years in jail, stood Nelson Mandela. In this three act opera, laced with musical and jazz tones, the company capture the sacrifice of the man and his nation and consummates his eternal legacy.

The production is a reflection of not only the personal plight of Mandela as a man, but gives the worldly impact that was influenced by his passion for peace and the liberation of black South Africans.

Mandela takes us through each important time period of Mandela’s life, from growing up as the adopted son of a respected African Chief, to his long awaited freedom from prison. It perfectly perfectly bridges the gap between South Africa during Apartheid and the reconciliation phase that the country sees itself with today.

It gives us hope that the people can fulfil Mandela’s simple wish of peace for which he was prepared to give his life.

Director and writer Michael Williams said in regards to his reaction of Post-Apartheid South Africa: ‘During this period South African Society seemed preoccupied with making peace with its troubled past, negotiating its way through the present and attempting to set foundations for a sustainable future. The timing of the creation of these operas, written during this emotionally-charged cubicle in our history, was both reactive and serendipitous.’

The trilogy contains three very distinct acts which portray defining moments of Mandela’s life that we know to have shaped the cause of the ANC and the fight for peace. Mandela is played by three performers, each representing ages of life. Mandla Mndebele portrays Mandela 3, within his oldest years and through the poignant time of imprisonment. We also see Peace Nzirawa as the activist and influencial peace protestor as Mandela 2. Thato Machona depicts Mandela 1 as a young boy, making his early transitions into manhood. Act one shows the time from 1934-1941 and we see Mandela’s childhood influences, against a backdrop of an operatic score. In Act two, Mandela’s political stance and the rise of the ANC starts to gain traction, while the final act tells us of the fight that was continued by others, especially his wife Winnie, on the outside, while Mandela fought imprisonment.

The production has distinct musical features, which brings out Mandela’s very human and personal life within personal relationships and family, as well as the political surge against oppression. Music is taken directly from its South African roots and composers Mike Campbell and Peter Louis have created a breath-taking opera with undertones of upbeat rhythms direct from cool Sophiatown. Graeme Farrow is the Artistic Director at Wales Millennium Centre and says ‘The music matches the vastly different phases of Mandela’s journey from freedom to fighter president. The upbeat jazz and swing-influenced songs of Sophiatown are framed by musical styles more familiar in contemporary opera – with a dash of Xhosa folk music that grounds the production in its African roots. Indeed, there is a distinct change in each act which allows the trilogy to be followed with ease, heavily determined by the strong music that lays tribute to the passion of the cause. It is conducted by Tim Murray, of which is explained ‘each act is in stark contrast to the others, but with an over-arching dramatic theme that shines a light on the life of an extraordinary man.’

The production was made in 2010, as part of Cape Town Opera’s season which also paralleled South Africa hosting the FIFA World Cup in the same year. Now in 2016, Mandela’s message continues to remain strong due to the tasteful and passionate opera company, who influence reaches audiences all over the world. Director Williams says that ‘Mr. Mandela never attended a live performance, though he did receive a recording of the production.’

It is a beautiful tribute to a truly special fighter for peace and reminds us of a time in South Africa’s modern history when the rest of world responded. In Cape Town Opera’s unique style of African song, dance and atmosphere, we see the changes Mandela brought to his own country and his influence on the world. A five star show worthy of the man

Elizabeth Halpin

Mandela Trilogy is at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday and Wednesday, 21-22 September. Box office 0844 338 5000,