REVIEW: Amélie the Musical (Birmingham Alexandra) | theatre

We booked to see Amélie very spontaneously about a week ago, knowing very little about it, and… well. It was a journey.

This is definitely not the best photo, but even with editing the lighting did me no favours. Hand modelling by my mum.

The synopsis for Amélie is somewhat vague and very short, describing simply that she is a French girl who isolates herself but orchestrates small acts of kindness; she then has a chance to fall in love and she has to change how she would normally act. For me, it sounded perfect – I love to see introverted characters begin to thrive across the story of a show, and I’m a sucker for a romance.

I really wanted to love it. The fact that the cast are also the orchestra is amazing, and every single one of them is so incredibly talented. The music is beautiful, and the choreography that goes with it; the movement whilst they play and how it intertwines with the changing of the sets, it has everything within it to be amazing. For me, it was the story and its pacing that stopped me from loving it.

This musical version of Amélie is based on the film, which I admit that I haven’t seen (can you tell by my reliance on the tiny synopsis?). My issue with it came with the pace – the first half seemed to take a very long time to cover a very short period of time, whereas the second half covered a much bigger chunk of time at a much quicker speed. The romance was barely built throughout before it peaked in the space of about ten minutes at the end, meaning I had very little connection to the characters and I wasn’t overly bothered by their story. The director (Mike Fentiman) says in the programme that the show is a “simple, gentle, moving exploration of human loneliness and isolation”, and whilst I see that such a slow-moving romance should show this, the end felt so rushed that I feel like it stops this from being what the audience takes away from it.

The set is brilliantly done – most, if not all, the shows I’ve seen in the last few years have had very simple sets which then have basic sets revealed in them, or lighting/projections mostly used to represent the scenes throughout (see my review of The Color Purple ), so this was very different for us, but I really liked it. The set is highly elaborate, mostly used as a train station but elements are moved by the cast throughout to use them differently; the pianos have sets hidden within and the photobooth doubles as a door when rotated. Again, the choreography was so clever in moving pieces like the photobooth and I did really enjoy that!

The final element that I didn’t really get on with was the blurred lines between Amélie’s reality and her daydreams, letters and (slight spoilers) the sort-of hallucinations of one of the other characters. I’m fairly sure these lines are blurry on purpose, but Elton John and a gnome dressed as a samba dancer turning up at random points didn’t necessarily confuse me, but it almost took the tone of the show to a different place quite suddenly; it became more slap-stick like, and I found it quite hard to get into the story due to this constant movement.

It was a genuine shame for me that I found the pace so difficult – maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t seen the film, or maybe I just don’t have the same appreciation for the way this show is constructed that others might have. The music and choreo was so good and every member of the cast is extremely talented (they can sing, dance, act AND play instruments – often doing several of those things simultaneously) so I did enjoy it, but it just wasn’t the show, the story for me.

REVIEW: The Color Purple – The Musical (Birmingham Hippodrome) | theatre

The stage at the end of the show, and the front of the programme.

I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker when I was about 12, it having been recommended to me as a sort of alternative classic. As such a young white girl, it was one of the first things that made me truly aware of my privilege and it has stuck with me ever since. So, when it was advertised that it was playing in Birmingham I almost immediately booked a pair of tickets – and I am so, so happy I did.

T’Shan Williams as the protagonist, Celie, is stunning; she carries the innocence and slight naivety that Celie has during her early life before transforming into the empowered woman we see after she has met Shug Avery (Joanna Francis) and Sofia (Karen Mavundukure). Both of these women were also phenomenal – they had stage presence second to none and I think the audience hung on to their every word. Obviously, both of these women are key to the story in teaching Celie what is right and wrong, and the actresses carried off their characters so well. I also adored Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie, and it may be my only gripe with the show that she is not on stage for half as much as I wanted her to be! Her chemistry with T’Shan Williams was incredible and they seemed to fit so easily as sisters throughout, and their voices came together absolutely beautifully.

Every character in this show is important to Celie’s journey in some way, and every character was pulled off with such energy, and you could tell that this show meant so much to every actor and actress in it. We went on closing night, and the cast’s group hug at the end of the bows had me almost in tears. I loved all their individual voices but it was so joyous to listen to groups of the cast sing, and the scenes and music blended so seamlessly from the heart-breaking scenes to the high-spirited. I’d be hard-pushed to say I have any favourites, but I loved “Hell No!” (Sofia) and “Big Dog” (Mister, Field Hands and Celie). In the second half, I was almost stunned by Mister’s solo “Mister Song”, by Ako Mitchell, because he hadn’t sung with such emotion and musicality in the first half.

One of the things I love most about this story is the contrasting lives of Sofia and Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) to those of Celie and Mister, because they show the breaking of the cycle and how children will not necessarily become like their parents. I think it’s really important that they cut the narrative, and Harpo throughout was so lovely to watch flourish. And finally, there has to be a shout-out given to the Church Ladies (Danielle Kassarate, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah and Landi Oshinowo) who provided the light-hearted transitions throughout and seemed to appear at slightly hilariously inappropriate moments.

I adored the set for this show, in which at the beginning all that can be seen is two cut out triangles and a rectangle; the sets appear as and when around the actors with some props being organically taken on and off set by those in the scene. The set designer (Alex Loade) says in the programme that because Celie has little control over her life, “it makes sense… [that] Celie remains fixed and the locations arrive around her”. I enjoyed how basic each set was, only adding what was needed to the story, never distracting. The only static prop is the letterbox, which as a key part to the story, and Mister’s control of Celie, is entirely appropriate.

The set at the beginning of the show which gives little away

The costumes had a similar effect, for me – in the opening song, it was noticable for me that there was very little colour except for the outfits of Nettie and Celie, the latter of which was slightly muted as if showing the fact that she was seen as somewhat beneath Nettie, who shone in her bright yellow dress, her hair down in braids. This continues across the show, with the exception of the gorgeous bright blue outfits in the letters scene where Celie is imagining where Nettie is – the stark contrast to the muted scenes of Celie’s life clearly gives the impression of desperation and imagination and wishing, and it is stunning.

I can’t recommend this show more, and it easily gets 5/5 from me (and my mum, who I always drag to the theatre!) – I truly hope it gets a tour or transfer to the West End as it will be such a shame if more people don’t get to see it. I think it’s such a brilliant show in that it has those light-hearted moments and amazing choreography, but that never takes away from the serious tale at hand.

Photo from the bows at the end of the show – an extremely deserved standing ovation for their closing show! (Photos allowed during the bows).

On leaving school, change and recovery | mental health

Change has never sat well with me. I dislike uncertainty, I hate my life being in other people’s hands; even if it’s in my own, I hate the choices and the need to put trust in myself, something I’ve never quite had.

I always knew I was going to be somewhat emotional about leaving my school, with so many of my teachers having been such a solid support system, some for three or four years – but I wasn’t ready for how much reflection it would cause on how much has changed in the last few years for me. I didn’t realise how much it would truly, honestly hurt – a cause for celebration, but also of confusion and sadness; beginning a new period of having to be truly honest with myself.

It’s caused flashbacks of my time in the unit, and at my first secondary school where my mental health deteriorated so significantly; a whirlwind of shouting and alarms, being left alone in medical rooms at my worst and being told I was faking it. It’s hard to cope with when such negative memories pop up almost insidiously at random. I remember parts of those times in such a vivid way that it’s made me stop a little bit dead in my tracks, at the strangest of times.

Simultaneously, I look at more recent times. I remember my GCSE results day surrounded by some of my favourite people; the after-school sessions where I would finally grasp a concept. I can look over the memories from this year, of the support when I came back from my pain programme, the meetings with the two teachers who I worked on my EPQ with – me being slightly (very) forceful with my debates and them playing devil’s advocate, slightly teasingly so. I am not the girl who cowered away with one small poke anymore.

It’s interesting to see what change does my state of mind even if I’m at the strongest I’ve been in the longest time. I wonder if it is out of sadness, or vulnerability, or a weird bittersweet nostalgia. Maybe it is more about how much support the school I have just left gave me in comparison, and less about the nastier set of memories which are popping up. Maybe it is the people I have left behind, or I will leave behind in September. Whichever way, it hurts.

I’m letting myself take some time, I’m allowing myself to feel this way, even if it might not be quite right. I’m letting myself bask slightly in pride, something I have never, ever let myself do.

I’ve gone from the girl who started having panic attacks and had them at one point twice daily, to the one who had to spend time in an inpatient unit, to now having only had one panic attack in 6 months and having been out of therapy for 2 years in August. There were weeks at a time where I told my sixth form team I was going to drop out every single day, but now I’ve finished. I did it. Regardless of the piece of paper I pick up in a month, I did it.

I’ve told myself this is an overdramatic reaction, because in the grand scheme of my life this is nothing. But regardless of if it doesn’t matter to me when I hit 70, at the moment it’s been a huge percentage of my life – especially when I have had so much happen to me in the last 5 years. I saw someone I haven’t seen since I was 13 a few days ago, and when they said “well, fill me in then!”, I realised just how much has happened, how long these few years have felt.

And in that, it makes me laugh because apart from my family, barely anyone who was in my life back when I started to have be that girl I said before – the girl who had her first panic attack in her form room and thought that’d be the end of it – is still in it now. I doubt those people would even recognise me. I think I’m glad of that.

So maybe I am being melodramatic. I’m sure I am, and I’m sure at some point I’ll be annoyed at myself for writing such a over the top blog post that’s less factual or cynical than I was aiming for this newer blog. But for now, I’m letting myself have this one. I think fifteen year old Charli deserves it.

A conflicting mindset, cynicism and three weeks in a city | chronic illness

I have been suffering with chronic pain as part of my chronic illness for as long as I remember – I thought it was completely normal when I was ten – but more severely since I was around 15 years old, and it’s often hard for me to see past the fact that I’ve somewhat “lost my youth” to my pain. In July of last year, I spent a week in Bath on an individual pain rehabilitation programme, and then spent a further three weeks there this January on a group programme. I have learnt to protect my heart and mind with a lack of trust and a lack of hope, so I was severely cynical, but I can truly say that it changed it all. Several people have asked me about my experiences with this service, so I thought that it might be useful to write about it in a bit more depth.

I was extremely lucky to be offered both of these programmes, with the first being a year ago this week. On my individual programme I did not open up as much as I could have meaning I got much more out of my three week programme, but it was an extremely important part of my journey. One of my biggest issues was how co-dependent I was with my mum, and the staff began to keep us apart and they took me out to quite a few different places throughout the week.

Some might say that this doesn’t sound like treatment for pain – and I would have argued the same at the time. But for me, my anxiety was so tied up with my pain because the pain stopped me from going out alone and would essentially immobilise me in a lot of situations.

In comparison, my group programme was more focused on the pain itself and my mindset, along with the anxiety and other emotions and issues that pain can cause. Chronic pain is so, so complex and although your mindset will not make it go away, it can change your perspective and how you then go on to deal with the world. That’s obviously an extremely basic version, but I think the point I want to make is that if you go on one of these programmes, you really have to trust the staff and try to let go of your overall cynicism. I know this is difficult because we protect ourselves so much when we are in this constant pain, but these programmes are built on trust and participation.

Living in Bath for 3 weeks, 2 of which were on my own, was so crucial to the changes I made during my programme. We had to go on food shops on our own, do our washing, support each other and generally just live independently, which isn’t something I’d ever done properly – challenges came up in both the independent living and the social aspects of the stay, but I learnt how to deal with and overcome these issues.

A lot of people are often intrigued by the programme I did in January, mostly because I came back not walking with the walking stick I had been using for a week and a half. They either think I was faking, or that I’ve been healed, but it’s neither of those… I had been gaining strength since my July programme but I was reluctant to come away from my walking aid without the support I then had from the staff.

A few people have asked for advice about going on programmes like this – and I think I would mainly say that an open mind is everything, both in terms of trust as I said but also in not expecting any certain outcomes. It’s made very explicitly clear from the beginning that these programmes do not get rid of chronic pain, they don’t even necessarily reduce it – for me, it reduced as I was less focused on it, but for some it might even rise slightly as you are challenging yourself and participating more in your life. If you put everything you have into these programmes, you will get something out of it, whether that be gaining your independence back completely or the first steps on a longer journey.

Thanks to BCPS (and the NHS, of course), I’m off to university in September, I finished my A Levels, and recently I’ve been to concerts, Pride, parties; I am doing more than I managed to do across several years of my youth. I am forever grateful for this – I realise I am extremely lucky to have been given this opportunity and I will never take it for granted.