Words by Susan Cox & Sophie King
‘Underrated: Birmingham – the Musical’, was the latest offering from Women & Theatre; a company with a history of productions aimed at their participants, as well as their audience.
Held at the MAC, in their Foyle Studio, the show ran for two performances over two consecutive nights.
The culmination of four groups: W&T, Queensbridge School, Priestly Smith School and The Children’s Society – ‘Underrated’ was the story of a guide book reviewer; ready to write off Birmingham, before being taken on ‘a whirlwind tour of the city’s delights and assets’ by ’our most dynamic residents’, i.e. children and young adults.
Birmingham is the butt of many jokes, but it’s old humour; albeit so ingrained even some Brummies think it’s true. So I wondered what relevance a musical about this theme would hold. Would it proffer new insight, or was it just another easy poke at the city?
As I approached the Foyle Studio, a group of the ‘young people’ were gathered outside; asking the audience what they didn’t like about Birmingham. The answers were as you’d expect; the accent, the traffic, the crime, the football teams, some of the new buildings. Already I felt the need to defend.
Entering the auditorium, we were instructed to walk across the stage to our seats. In fact you had to, there seemed to be no other way.
The stage was already populated with disparate groups; two teenage girls looking at their mobile phones, some street dancing, others selling eggs from their imaginary market stall.
In the centre of the stage was a small golden bull; a replica of the Bull Ring statue, which we were told to walk around to take our seats. The atmosphere was noisy and vibrant, and having to walk into it forced you to engage with the play and performers. You had no option but to be drawn in.
Around the stage were TV screens, showing pictures of Birmingham from Alum Rock (where, by the way, ‘you can buy your wedding dress’) to Edgbaston. Two areas that could not be more different. And that was the point. The differences; between ourselves and others, where we live and how we live our lives, what we like about Birmingham and what we don’t.
The production started with the guide book ‘rater’, initially not impressed, having his mind changed through songs from the cast. The young actors, bravely using a musical format to showcase their story, started to sing through an expressive narrative; reflecting their individual relationship to the city and highlighting the diversity of the cast themselves.
The rawness for the subject made it intense, but intimate. Fun but not frivolous. And the generosity of the cast towards each other felt genuine and warm.
‘Birmingham’s a Good Place’ explored the experiences of children who have come to live in the city from war torn countries, with no adult security or family to help them make sense of the world.
Whilst, ‘You Are My Eyes’ described the auditory battle of the senses, fought by visually impaired children, in this bustling second city.
By the time it came to Saima’s Song, the titular ‘Underrated’, I was in tears. As was the person next to me, and (I think) the soloist.
Slick, highly produced pieces they may not have been; the workshop style evident in the final performance, but delivered with a level of integrity not often seen. Only let down by the acoustics of the theatre, or maybe the lack of microphones, that made the lyrics sometimes inaudible.
By the conclusion of the final song, ‘Diversity’, the rater was convinced that Birmingham was a good place to be; along with the rest of us.
And despite the limited attendance, perhaps the bad weather or fear of another ‘school production’ had deterred people from coming, it made me proud to be a Bummie.
An ultimately thought provoking piece about the city we live in.
For more about Women & Theatre, visit http://www.womenandtheatre.co.uk
For more on the MAC, visit http://www.macarts.co.uk/