Triumph for pride of Brummagem
Smiles before the storm: There are plenty of laughs in the story of Brum through the Cox family but there is also sadness and tragedy for family and city. Above Lenny Jnr (Nick Owenford), front right, is about to head off to the Mulberry Bush pub to celebrate the birth of his son. The year - 1974
Wallop Mrs Cox
BMOS Musical Theatre Company & Birmingham Hippodrome
IT was a decade ago, not long after I had seen this pulsating, heart-stirring show for the first time, on its inaugural outing at the Crescent Theatre, that I began saying that Birmingham's musical theatre companies ought to ensure that every year at least one of them is giving it the airing it deserves.
And now, about half a dozen productions later, it has arrived at the Hippodrome – altered and updated but still brimming with excitement, humour and pathos as it presents the story of a family of Bull Ring traders from the middle of the First World War to today.
What's more, I haven't changed my mind: it is still, unmistakably, a cracker of a musical – and still without a hope of finding its way on to the West End stage, where many far poorer shows are permitted to preen.
Its handicap is its
So this professional community production at the Hippodrome is as big as it's going to get – and anyone with a feeling for Birmingham should make a point of taking in what is the most painless of history lessons and allowing it to kindle memories, even if one of them happens to be prompted when somebody says our Mum reckons half of Brummagem was conceived on the top of the Lickeys.
Memories? What about going posh and opening a tin of red salmon? Then there was the Kardomah. There were the BSA and Austin factories, and the smell of vinegar that hung over Aston. We see Uncle Ernie, the early spiv. We are reminded that news vendors used to shout “'spatch and Mail.” We are invited to agree that we've got more chance of a coconut dropping on our head than of catching a number eight bus.
Ed James, presenter of Heart Breakfast, links the
scenes and tells the story of
a century of Coxes
Ed James, presenter of Heart Breakfast, links the scenes
and tells the story of a century of Coxes
But with it all,
unfailingly, there comes immense pride. It shines out, both in the words
and the characters' demeanour, and it scores relentless direct hits with
John Adams's highly-populated production brims with talent that is too widespread to detail in full, but Wallop's groupies – and there must surely be a few of them around by this time – will all have been looking forward to Feed My Lambs, John Clay's magnificent show-stopper as Holy Joeoly HoHjj.. This never fails to enthral, delivered in a huge voice that matches his impressive frame and supported by vigorous arm gestures. The first-night audience was in raptures but somehow resisted the urge to clap along with him.
Samantha Hinchliffe (the third of the five Emilys) gives a riveting account of What About Us? and takes us inexorably to tragedy with My Lenny's Comin' Home. Sharon Burns (Emily 4) reveals herself to be a highly talented torch singer for Twenty-four Hours a Day, and the whole company is splendidly involved in numbers such as 'Andy Carriers and Hello, Bull Ring – starring the excellent young Lucy Ganss on the first night as Emily 1, a role she shares with Harmonie Lloyd..
Sharron Burns as Emily 4 produced a show highlight with Twenty Four Hours a Day
A special mention, too, for Nick Owenford and his honest and believable portrayal of Lenny 2, for Michael Barrie (Jimmy Cox), for Edna Cobley and her delightful cameo as the Ancient Prostitute, and for the men for their energetic account of Redfern's Tripe.
At the heart of the 95-year-long story is Sheila Palmer, as Emily 5. She gives a heart-warming, outspoken and humorous account of the tough old biddy who is the family matriarch – the toughness being particularly demonstrated when Emily 3 has a spirited encounter with the local thug, Peaky Blinder (Craig Hall) and sends him packing.
The cavernous stage often made it difficult to pinpoint where individual voices were coming from during the more crowded scenes, but this was a scintillating first night, its quality all the more remarkable because the company had been engaged in the technical rehearsal until an hour before the show was due to start. (As a matter of record, it did not actually begin until 11 minutes after its allotted time, which meant that about two dozen members of the cast had the thankless job of loitering on stage and looking interested for even longer than had been planned). They succeeded admirably – and the two hours of action that followed were unquestionably worth waiting for. This is a night of top-quality theatre. To 12.6.10.
CRASH, bang, wallop...what a musical! This updated production of the show written and composed by Birmingham born Euan Rose and Laurie Hornsby makes you proud to be a Brummie.
All the warmth, humour and drive of the people who helped make the second city great is revealed through the eyes of Bull Ring market trader Emily Cox, mother of 13 and matriarch of the community.
A joint venture between the Hippodrome and the long-established BMOS Musical Theatre Company, it has gained a far more 'professional' look than when it first hit the stage 10 years ago, and is bang up-to-date.
In the closing scenes the old Mrs Cox, convincingly played by Sheila Palmer, regrets the passing of some of the city's famous companies, including the car producers, and the departure into foreign ownership of firms like HP Sauce and Cadburys...."We don't mek anything today".
The 70-strong local cast have been well drilled in eight months of rehearsals and it shows with their movement around the huge stage and in some slick choreography by Beverley Norris-Edmunds.
As the story takes us through two wars and battles over changes to the Bull Ring, photographs of the city in black and white, then colour, flash onto screens at the rear of the stage to help the feeling of nostalgia....even Hitler's damage and the pub bombings are there.
There are marvellous songs, too, including a superb performance of Twenty Four Hours a Day by Sharron Burns (Emily Cox 4), and John Clay (Holy Joe) with Feed My Lambs. The Back of Rackhams, Hello Bull Ring and the show's anthem 'Birmingham' also delight the audience.
Samantha Hinchcliffe (Emily Cox 3) and Michael Barrie (Jimmy Cox) also sparkle, while Heart FM Radio breakfast show presenter Ed James pulls the strings as the Narrator.
Directed by John Adams with Alan Warner's musical direction, Wallop Mrs Cox runs to Saturday night. It's not The Sound of Music, but its the genuine sound of Brum, and the much maligned accent, thankfully, isn't overdone.
WE might not be the city of a thousand trades any more and the Austin and HP might have gone along with a host of others but Brum still has a musical and what a musical it is.
Euan Rose and Laurie Hornsby have brought their pride of Brummagem bang up to date and with a cast of 60 plus Wallop Mrs Cox is full of life, colour and action from old Emily Cox's funeral at the start to her death at the end.
The show traces the life of Brum for the past century through the generations of the Cox family, Bull Ring market traders. Their life is that of Britain's second city as they live - and die - through the Second World War and the Birmingham Bombings. There is the resistance to the new Bull Ring and the latest incarnation of the latest Bullring.
A simple set - much more complex than it looks - allows the large cast to fill the stage without appearing overcrowded for some excellent songs from Almost a Lady at the opening to the show's anthem, Birmingham, to close.
Memorable numbers include What About Us from Lenny 2 (Nick Owenford) and Emily 3 (Samantha Hinchcliffe) as Lenny goes off to war and the tub thumping, praise the Lord Feed My Lambs from Holy Joe (John Clay and a moving Twenty Four Hours a Day from Emily 4 (Sharron Burns).
Matriarch Emily Cox (Sheila Palmer) overseeing Christmas in 1989
The Back of Rackhams from Eric and Eddie Cox (Michael Bentley and Adam Swift) is a splendid comedy number and gave us Edna Cobley as an ancient lady of the night. Edna appeared in Cinderella at the Alex with Noel Gordon and worked in a circus where her roles included clown and riding horses and elephants and she also toured the country in a dance double act. Proving you can always improve she is still taking tap classes. Oh, did I mention she is also 80. All power to your elbow and those dancing feet, Edna.
Through it all we have Emily 5 (Sheila Palmer), the Matriarch who leads us through the generations and in her final hours brings us up to date with Brum and the Cox family.
You have to remind yourself that this is not a professional cast, such is the quality on show. The general feeling is that Wallop Mrs Cox and its Brummie accents would not go down well with folks outside the Midlands. If that is so then it is their loss. A splendid evening's entertainment.