BPREVIEW: BE FESTIVAL @ Birmingham REP 02-06.07.19

Words by Ed King / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL

BE FESTIVAL returns to the Birmingham REP for it’s 10th year, presenting a daily programme of workshops, seminars and evening performances from Tuesday 2nd July to Saturday 6th July. There will also be the BE FESTIVAL Interval Dinner – hosted on the REP’s main stage each evening, where patrons are invited to enjoy a mid-programme meal alongside the artists preforming and the festival team.

Showcasing work from performers, artists and productions companies from all across Europe, BE FESTIVAL’s main programme begins at 7pm during the week and from 12noon on Saturday 7th July. Day tickets are priced at £24 (includes both shows and dinner) or £16 (without dinner), with concessions also available. You can also purchase a Week Pass for £60 (without dinner) or £100 (including dinner), or a separate Weekend Pass for £45 which must include dinner.

BE FESTIVAL also run ‘a separate programme of amazing visual arts, exhibitions, talks, workshops and music’ for free, every day of the festival. For more BE FESTIVAL information, including the full programme and links to online ticket sales, click here.

BE FESTIVAL (or Birmingham European Festival, to give it it’s full name) has been hosting its varied programme of theatre, performances and art for a decade now, launching at REP – where it has remained – back in 2010. Spawned from an Arts Council meeting to explore the future of theatre in Birmingham, BE’s founding mother and fathers – Isla Aguilar, Miguel Oyarzun and Mike Tweddle – formulated an event programme inspired by the Spanish ACT Festival, reportedly scribbling down their initial ideas on a napkin in a Birmingham curry house. A festival fable we want to believe so much we won’t even question it.

But film clichés and Birmingham’s cuisine culture aside, BE FESTIVAL had a serious and respectable agenda – namely, to bring the best of independent theatre and performance pieces from across Europe to be celebrated in Birmingham, with ‘the ultimate aim of breaking down borders, that only serve to divide us’. Admirable stuff, especially against the backdrop of an increasingly divisive small and big ‘p’ political mindset about Britain’s place in the wider European community.

Indeed, it seems that BE FESTIVAL has been somewhat ironically placed in the calendar over the past few years – with the regular July event being wrapped around some pretty pertinent political bluster since it all went a little sour back in 2016. But then irony knows no bounds in Whitehall, and I suspect there’s one erstwhile Secretary of Sate for Culture who’s invite might arguably get lost in the post these days.

But BE FESTIVAL is not about politics or propaganda (not directly, at least) – it is a celebration of theatre, a cultural event for Birmingham to be proud of as it opens its doors to a programme of European productions in an annual showcase event. Something that the second city was curiously lacking.

As BE FESTIVAL founders, Aguilar and Oyarzun, told Birmingham Review back in 2017, when they first came to explore Birmingham’s cultural landscape: “…we asked people ‘so when is the Theatre Festival happening? The International Theatre Festival?’ Assuming there was one. And they said ‘no, there’s no theatre festival. There’s a brilliant performance festival, there are festivals of music, festivals of cinema, but there’s no theatre festival.’ We were kind of a bit surprised by that really.” And so BE FESTIVAL was born… cue mood music, dramatic lighting and a shot of an ink stained napkin.

So, what’s on at BE FESTIVAL 2019? Too much to cover in its entirety, but with up to three performances each night ‘transforming the rarely seen backstage areas into a lively festival hub’, we’ve cherry picked a few from the overall programme that looked particularly exciting to us.

On Tuesday 2nd July, as part of the opening day for BE FESTIVAL 2019, last year’s first prize winner – BE FESTIVAL issues awards to the best performers and productions from each’s year’s line-up – Tom Cassani (UK) performs his latest piece of trickery and deception, I Promise You That Tonight. Challenging ‘those who make extraordinary claims’, Cassini will ‘proselytize, pedal and preach the importance of remaining wary’ about anyone who’s promises seem just that little too good to be true.

Wednesday 3rd July sees some adventurous physical theatre, as Maxime Dautremont and Foucauld Falguerolles (Belgium) ‘present amazing feats of acrobatics amongst axe throwing and Chinese pole technique’ in their show One Shot. Followed by choreographer Paula Rosolen’s (Germany) exploration of ‘what now remains of ‘punk’’ – using dance to dig into the ‘visual language’ of the punk movement in PUNK‽

On Thursday 4th July, Ça Marche (Catalonia / Spain) ask ‘how can we dream the best future for our world?’ in their show Silence – answering through the minds of children, ‘free of inhibitions, untainted by imagined reason or ethics.’ Heady stuff… there’s also ‘improvised chaos, snow and giant blow up monsters.’ Then on Friday 5th July, Anna Biczok (Hungary) ‘mixes memories, imagination, and changes in perspective’ to explore what it means to truly live in the moment – in her solo lecture performance titled, Precedents to a Potential Future.

As part of the final day at BE FESTIVAL 2019, on Saturday 6th July, the Barcelona based theatre company La Conquesta del Pol Sud (Spain) perform A Land Full of Heroes – a play co-produced by University of Birmingham, that follows the life of Romanian writer Carmen-Francesca Banciu as she ‘remembers her life-changing trip to Berlin in 1990, a year after the fall of the wall and off the back of the Romanian revolution in Bucharest’, asking ‘was Berlin the mirage of a new European vision?’

Then during the Saturday evening’s main programme, Marco D’Agostin (Italy) presents Avalanche – an award winning production where the two protaganists are ‘locked together in the aftermath of Cyclops’s gaze’ and dance to ‘fill their new blasted world with meaning’ in a show that is ‘desperately piecing together meaning in search of an outcome.’

And that’s, quite lietrally, not even half of it – click here for the full festival line up. Birmingham Review will also be publishing updates from each night of the BE FESTIVAL 2019, so watch this space for gentle nudges to go and check the programme out for yourself.

BE FESTIVAL 2019 – Official Trailer


BE FESTIVAL runs daily at the Birmingham REP from Tuesday 2nd July to Saturday 6th July. For direct festival information, including a full line up and links to online ticket sales, visit www.befestival.org/festival

For more on the wider BE FESTIVAL activity, outside of the 2019 programme, visit www.befestival.org 

For more from the Birmingham REP, including further event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk


NOT NORMAL NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.

To learn more about the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign, click here. To sign up and join the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign, click here.

If you have been affected by any of the issues surrounding sexual violence – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL NOT OK website.

INTERVIEW: Alex Claridge – Nocturnal Animals

Words by Ed King

“I thought we should try and have some fun between now and the robot-based apocalypse.”

Alex Claridge is opening a new restaurant. The team behind The Wilderness are moving into the city centre, delivering a two tier establishment on Bennets Hill – with 42 fine dining covers downstairs, and a 60 capacity cocktail led bar upstairs.

Sound familiar? Yeah, well, it’s not. Nocturnal Animals opens fully from November 7th, with soft launches from November 1st, and is best described by the man behind it – “a cat amongst the pigeons”, something I wouldn’t be surprised to find on the menu in six months, giving a spin to a traditional burger or breakfast.

“The idea there is that it’s familiar flavours,” explains Claridge, as we sit in The Wilderness – discussing the eight course main menu for Nocturnal Animals. “It has got inspiration from take away food and I suppose more everyday food, and we’re just trying to present the most intense versions of those – all our cookery is, it’s not rocket science, I’ll take something familiar and find a way to do that in a new or playful fashion and we’ll present the best version of what we can.”

Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, BirminghamNocturnal Animal’s press release describes the new venture as a ‘bold new concept’, a subversive two finger addition to Birmingham’s culinary landscape that’s a ‘fun and inventive experience…. inspired by 80’s pop culture.’ A few phrases and words appear more than once in the public domain around Nocturnal Animals, some featured in the previous sentence, but it’s the reputation of its predecessor that has arguably given this new restaurant life. That and money. Blood. Sweat, probably a few tears…

“So, it’s a bit eighties,” adds Claridge, “but really it’s pop culture – it’s very tongue in cheek, we know it’s high end but it’s also acknowledging the contradictions and the numerous hoighty toighty high faluting wankery that goes on within the higher end of the food, beverage and hospitality sector.” I note down ‘hoighty toighty high faluting wankery’, intent to use this reference at the earliest possible moment. “But above all else I wanted to do a fun venue; the part of town where it is, is bustling. There’s a lot of operators – some are very good, some are absolute horseshit. But I wanted to do something that was quality focused, where genuinely it’s ‘the good shit’, but in the most fun and least pretentious way possible… there’s an irony because it’ll still get called pretentious, I’m well aware of the fact, but that’s just life. I wanted to do something that was fun, that was accessible, that kind of played to a bit of joy.”

It is here that the journalist 101 handbook demands I list the accolades and adventurous dishes that The Wilderness has been known for, and which could have also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous TripAdvisor entries. But I won’t. It won’t help. Nocturnal Animals is clearly its own beast, if you’ll excuse the pun, and as Claridge declares, “anything that people really enjoy, just kill it. As soon as anyone can predict or knows what we’re going to do – as soon as anything is properly successful, and we’re known for it – I will get rid of it, I will throw it under the bus. When we moved to The Jewellery Quarter I didn’t take a single dish with me, I didn’t keep anything, nothing we’re known for. There’s nothing, for me personally, more depressing than a chef serving the same fucking thing eight years down the line.”

Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham“For all the framework and the fun, fundamentally I want my cookery to taste immense,” adds Claridge, clearly sidestepping an à la carte listicle. “It’s about flavour intensity and flavour clarity; so, if I say it’s a dish that should have pork on it, it should taste of pork. And it should be the most intense version of pork you’ve ever had. We’ve just applied that through the menu.”

But Nocturnal Animals is being presented as much more than a menu. Faber – the architects delivering the new build, and who cite a number of the city’s well patronised establishments on their client list – have had almost as much attention through the mainstream media as the team behind the restaurant. And as the adage goes, the first taste is with the eye. But where’s the line in the sand for Nocturnal Animals, between concept and culinary? “I focus on the end result,” cements Claridge, “I know how I want someone to feel when they’ve eaten that food, when they’ve had that experience, and I work backwards from there.”

And how about upstairs? A 60 capacity bar awaits this chef turned restaurateur, in a clearly visible location on one of Birmingham’s busiest shopping thoroughfares. And that’s commercial gold dust if you can use it correctly. Are Nocturnal Animals’ wet sales set to be akin to the dry?

“It’s certainly influenced by that fact that this is still a venue operated by a chef,” explains Claridge, as I fumble through a pronunciation of James Bowker – the mixologist who has been pulled in to shape and deliver the cocktail menu.Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham “It’s based on six flavours, six colours. And we’ve tried to focus on delivering, again, big flavour. With each flavour you can then get a long drink, a short drink, or a sharp drink – so we’ve tried to strip away some of the wankery… there’s no kind of emotions of… ‘a summer day’ or that sort of stuff, It’s more like, do you like these flavours and what style of drink do you want, then order it. Although I want it to be quality led I don’t want it to be inaccessible. I don’t believe you should require an additional NVQ to understand the menu.”

I’d be happy if I could see one, at this stage. But bookings are open and already being received for Nocturnal Animals, from both The Wilderness’s existing clientele and curious new comers. And there’s one addition to Claridge’s new venue that is all too easy to grab hold off. Afternoon Tea. Or rather, ‘an unabashedly badly behaved afternoon tea,’ as I read verbatim from a post on the Nocturnal Animals’ Facebook page.

“Afternoon Tea is something I never thought I do,” reiterates Claridge – stating his opinion on the offering that also appears on the social media post, “because I find the whole thing to be generally nauseatingly predictable. Also, I have umbrage with any experience that is so heavily gendered – the kind of marketing, ‘do you love your mother? If you do… Afternoon Tea’. I feel like that’s a bit simplistic and a bit shit really.” I twitch under the knowledge that this was, indeed, the birthday present I bought my matriarch, at Harvey Nichols no less. But the CND badge plastered lesbian I call mother, who built and ran the largest women’s bail hostel in the Midlands, had a wonderful time – spending the hour and a half cliché with her daughter and granddaughter. As far as I know they’re all still feminists, so perhaps we’re OK.

Afternoon Tea at Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham“The deal with myself was I’d only do it if it made sense with the venue,” continues Claridge, “and we could do it in a self-aware kind of way. Now with Nocturnal being a bar as well, we have a beautiful space upstairs that during the day… let’s be honest, there’s not a massive amount of cocktail drinking going on in the city. It’s not London, it’s a different profile. So, there was a commercial basis, and a space for that within the venue. And I wanted to do something that was pop culture, that was recognisable, but I wanted to do something that took the piss out of Afternoon Tea as this sort of ladylike – whatever that fucking means – delicate, refined, dainty… I wanted to take that and just punch it in the face.”

And to do that, Nocturnal Animals is… achem… ‘taking inspiration’ from a well known brand of children’s toy. Or not. For legal reasons I’m going to sit on the fence. But during the afternoon upstairs at Nocturnal Animals it will be ‘Basic Barbi and Recruiter Kyen’ serving you their own take on tea and scones.

“Barbi is in so many ways this pop culture figure, but I find it so much more interesting to present it with a mirror,” explains Claridge, “there’s nothing I’ve said about Basic Barbi and Kyen, for legal reasons, that isn’t basically already in that brand. It’s just holding a mirror to it and asking ‘are we… are we really OK with this? Is this really happening, does this still have a place in the group discussion?’ But the Afternoon Tea is still going to taste banging, it’s still delicious things, it’s still a satisfying afternoon tea experience. But I think we’ve found a progressive and playful way to do that.”

My stomach grabs the chance for specifics; can you elaborate on ‘delicious things’? “It’s all soup, twelve courses of soup,” jokes Claridge, I think. “No, the Afternoon Tea menu is a mixture of savoury serves, including a little pink burger – which in itself is quite a fun thing. And we’ve got a transition course which is a bacon and butterscotch macaroon. But the main servers are still… we’ve tried to take cakes and flavours that would not be unheard of on Afternoon Tea, we’re just presenting them in more exciting ways.

I think Victoria Sponge is fucking mega, for example, but you can’t – as a chef – just go, ‘here’s a Victoria Sponge’. And I don’t really get why not. But if we can present something, in a playful or whimsical way, to make people go ‘oh, that really is good’Nocturnal Animals / 20 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham – just almost, through that element of disruption of the expectation around those flavours, remind people how delicious some of these things are. How life affirming a little bit of fruit and a bit of cream can be.”

A blanket of familiarity seems a good place to wrap up, and the conversation trails off into a wider discussion of Birmingham’s hospitality scene and a less that glowing report card for the German Market, which is set to be Nocturnal Animals’ neighbour from opening to Christmas. As both a chef and a restaurateur Alex Claridge is firm in his endeavours, in a way that makes me understand why bookings are coming in before any menus or images are being released.

But the proof will be in the… insert pun here, and as I walk out onto the streets of Hockley with a few more questions than answers. Ambiguity’s a bitch. But that’s the fun, I guess. And it’s good to see an operator take such chances on the door steps of more ‘hoighty toighty high faluting wankery’ – instead of hiding amongst the Birkenstocks and ridiculous beards of the city’s creative industry led fringes.

And for all his self-deprecation, comic peer review imitations, and seeming aversion to adulation, Alex Claridge clearly cares about his creations. And that’s what sells, that’s what engages a public. That’s what made me want to interview him instead of copy and pasting a press release. I’ve repeated asked Claridge if he, himself, is having ‘fun’ with Nocturnal Animals – posing the question with another word that features heavily in the new venue’s rhetoric, and creating oddly long pauses whilst making me sound more like a quack than a hack.

But I’m also curious to know if he feels endorsed by Birmingham’s food and drink fraternity, both those that attend his restaurants and those that operate their own. So ‘fun’, sometimes. Maybe. But how about ‘loved’? “People who like food in Birmingham are aware that, in some way, we exist – and we do food,” explains Claridge, continuing the slightly self-effacing approach that has peppered this interview.

“But the interest is definitely there, and I think once people start to actually see the venue… like it or loathe it it’s going to be a difficult one to ignore.”

Nocturnal Animals opens fully from 7th November, with soft launches taking place from 1st November. For more information and online bookings, visit www.nocturnal-animals.co.uk


NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.

To sign up to NOT NORMAL – NOT OK, click here. To know more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK sticker campaign, click here.