If there’s a massive West End production looking to come to the second city, you can be sure its destination will be the Birmingham Hippodrome. Situated by the Arcadian Centre on the cusp of Birmingham’s gay village, the Hippodrome has made a name for itself as the home of spectacular productions along the Lion King/Wicked side of things, offering considerable stage space and state-of-the-art technology to accommodate leaping lions and warbling witches. The Hippodrome has come a long way from its beginnings as a variety theatre in the early 1900s, building strong links with Welsh National Opera over the years and acting as home to the globally acclaimed Birmingham Royal Ballet. The latter has also helped to nurture the building’s own DanceXchange studios, which intermittently play host to some of the finest dance companies in the world – most notably during the annual International Dance Festival. The Hippodrome also does brisk business with its annual Christmas panto – one of the highest grossing in the UK. The theatre’s Circle restaurant has made great pains recently to be seen as a fine dining destination in its own right, as well as the ideal place for a pre-show meal (pains that have undoubtedly paid off). You might also see cast members gather for a tipple or two in the Hippodrome’s StageSide bar, just over the road from the stage door in Thorp Street.
Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh and John Gielgud are just a few of the theatrical legends who have trodden the boards at the Birmingham Rep – although those boards were first laid in Station Street in 1913 by theatre impresario Sir Barry Jackson before being shifted to Broad Street in the 1970s. It’s been a long time since the theatre had its own in-house repertory cast, but Jonathan Church’s inventive stewardship as artistic director in the early 2000s saw audiences balloon to the point where the Rep became the leading light of Birmingham’s theatrical scene. The building received a lick of paint alongside the development of the new Library of Birmingham, and since its reopening in 2013 (the year of its centenary) the Rep has been balancing the necessity of attracting large audiences with a commitment to risk-taking. It’s done this by offering touring productions in the main house featuring some well-known names, alongside works from new writers – many of them Midlands-based – in its smaller spaces of The Studio and The Door. The Rep also has its own restaurant, a small affair clunkily known as Rep Eats! that probably won’t blow your culinary mind, but the theatre’s location in the centre of town means there are plenty of other options on offer nearby, ensuring time to have a leisurely meal before opening curtain.
Giving amateur theatre a good name for decades, The Crescent Theatre is a small but essential part of the second city’s theatre scene. Previously located in Cumberland Street, The Crescent has been in its current canalside location in Sheepcote Street since the late 1990s, when it was reopened by Celia Imrie, and has long operated its own in-house company that stages most of the productions that grace its boards – often at an astonishingly frequent rate. Regularly holding open auditions for anybody who wants to get involved, they also offer training for behind-the-scenes roles including sound and stage design. Featuring a large 300-plus seat auditorium and a smaller studio space with no fixed seating, one of the best aspects of the theatre is its ambitious choice of productions. As well as the usual suspects of jazz hand musicals and John Godber plays, past productions have included work from the likes of Martin McDonagh and David Mamet. Nor is The Crescent afraid to tackle a spot of Bill Shakespeare, and you can see a hoard of photographs from the theatre’s illustrious past plastered across the walls in the upstairs bar. Run by volunteers all year round, The Crescent’s ongoing existence is a testament to the passion of its dedicated team, and it’s a key component of Birmingham’s theatrical history.
As suggested by its name, The Old Rep started out as the city’s first repertory theatre in the early 20th century; a beautifully designed theatre featuring a large auditorium with close to 400 seats – and not a bad one in the house. Sir Derek Jacobi made his professional debut at The Old Rep, and Peter Brook directed his first production there, but when the original company got a new home in Broad Street in the 1970s (becoming what we now know as the Birmingham Rep), the venue spent a long time in the doldrums. A saviour finally arrived in the early 1990s in the form of the Birmingham Stage Company. The BSC has since made a name for itself producing some of the finest family shows in the country, premiering a number of Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo stories at The Old Rep and then touring them to wide acclaim. The venue itself is run by the Birmingham Ormiston Academy, which uses the space for rehearsal and staging their final year shows, and also leases it out to amateur companies looking for a professional space to stage their work. Recent refurbishments have revitalised the bar area and reminded audiences who visit that it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful theatres in the Midlands, giving The Old Rep a new lease of life that may one day see it rise to its mid-20th century heights again.
For a while, New Alexandra Theatre had something of a suspect reputation, thanks to a programme that offered a few too many visiting celebrity psychics and not enough actual theatre. That’s much less of a concern these days, with more classy musicals and touring shows helping to bolster its image as a commercial theatre with taste, alongside the occasional visit from Jethro. Considerably older than the Birmingham Rep, it holds the dubious honour of being the location of actress Gracie Housley’s death in 1902 when she collapsed on stage. Once a repertory theatre, the actual entrance of the Alex (only known as the ‘New’ Alex since the Ambassador Theatre Group took things over a few years back) was originally situated in St John Bright Street, but is now next to the busy Suffolk Street Queensway, linked to the rest of the building by a bridge that hovers above the revellers at the nearby Victoria pub. As well as theatre, the Alex offers slots for touring musicians looking for a more respectable gig venue, and comedians who’ve graduated from arts centres but haven’t quite made it to arena status yet (or don’t want to). Cutting-edge theatre it might not be, but what it does, the Alex does very well indeed.
Built in 1862 and designed by Julius Alfred Chatwin (who also contributed to the design of St Philip’s Cathedral opposite), the grade II listed Old Joint Stock started out as a parson’s library before being turned into the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank. Many decades later, this eye-catching building now houses both a stylish bar that attracts suited financial workers and a small black box studio. Opened in 2006 and holding around a hundred people, the theatre is accessed by making your way to the stairs at the back of the main room. As such, it's not the place for performers afraid of being up close and personal with their audience. As well as stripped-back plays, you’ll find touring comics making stop-offs on their way to the Edinburgh Fringe. Seeking non-cultural sustenance? Check out the pies and a fine selection of ales.
While some arts centres can be quite limited in what artistic disciplines they feature in their programme, mac doesn’t discriminate, and offers everything from theatre and comedy to cinema, dance, and visual art. Situated on the edge of Cannon Hill Park, it’s been at the centre of Birmingham’s arts community for decades, and once counted Oscar-nominated Mike Leigh as one of its resident theatre directors. Simply put, anyone interested in the fringes of modern theatre should make the mac one of their first ports of call, as both the main theatre and smaller Hexagon space give room to some of the most cutting edge (and, often, bizarre) theatre companies working today. There’s a small outdoor arena that comes into use in the summer, hosting theatre and live music, and the designers even found room for a first-floor gallery that offers both touring works and commissions from Midlands artists. The mac holds a plethora of workshops and courses – running the gamut from animation and capoeira dance to ceramics and tai chi – and Birmingham comic James Cook leads a regular stand-up course for anybody looking to turn their gags into polished routines. Throw in a small cinema that often screens films you won’t see anywhere else in the city, and you’ve got one of the most important cultural spaces in Birmingham.
Not to be confused with the Joe Penhall play Blue/Orange (although let’s hope it stages it one of these days), The Blue Orange Theatre occupies a rather unique space on Birmingham’s theatrical map. Unlike the many theatres that have celebrated 50 or even 100 years of thespian excellence within the second city, Mark Webster’s brainchild can’t yet lay claim to even five years’ existence. But in that short space of time, it’s made a considerable impact on the amateur theatre scene. Opened in 2011 in Great Hampton Street in the Jewellery Quarter – a sector of the city that’s been deprived of its own theatre for a long time – the main room of The Blue Orange Theatre has an ‘in the round’ studio design, while there’s also a rehearsal space and a small café bar, all colour coded to the building’s name. Suiting its newly born status, Blue Orange is committed to presenting evenings of new writing at least twice a year, holding a number of sessions for writers to work on their scripts before putting them into production. Rivalling The Crescent Theatre for productivity, Webster’s in-house company often tours across the Midlands and beyond, making it clear that – audiences permitting – this is a theatre that’s in it for the long haul.
Sitting on the former site of the Aston Hippodrome on the edge of the city centre, The Drum Arts Centre has a programme that couldn’t be more different from that of its previous resident. Instead of traditional variety fare, The Drum’s two auditoriums – a 350-seat main room and the smaller Andy Hamilton studio, named after the popular saxophonist – are geared specifically towards providing a forum for black and minority ethnic people to be heard. It’s the kind of forum that (shamefully, considering Birmingham’s multi-cultural make-up) isn’t found at many other venues in the city. The result is a programme of politically engaged theatre, socially relevant spoken word, subversive comedy and provocative art in the upstairs gallery, which feels as if it’s all developed naturally from the local Perry Barr, Aston, Newtown and Lozells communities that the venue has become a key part of. Regular visitors Benjamin Zephaniah and musician Courtney Pine were recently made patrons of The Drum, using their influence to help raise funds for a significant refit of the venue planned in the next few years. The food on offer at the bar isn’t quite as inspiring as the venue itself, but, handily, The Drum also sits opposite The Bartons Arms, a historic boozer that once had Laurel and Hardy stay over, and has the unique selling point of offering a completely Thai menu.
You might not expect a drab former metal pressings factory in the Jewellery Quarter to house Birmingham’s most adventurous theatre company, but then Stan’s Café (pronounced Stan’s ‘Kaff’) don’t like to do things traditionally. Formed by James Yarker in the early 90s, Stan’s Café position themselves on the experimental side of theatre, thinking beyond the normal theatrical set-up of an audience sat facing a group of actors on a stage. The company originally hired out the venue in 2008 for their now globally touring production Of All The People In All The World - an ambitious piece featuring an audience walking around over 100 tons of rice to represent each person on the planet - but they liked the space so much that they entered into an agreement with the still operating AE Harris & Co to run it as both a rehearsal and performance space all year round. Since then, the AE Harris Building has been used as a location for events at the annual Fierce Festival, along with work from the endlessly inventive Birmingham Opera Company. AE Harris isn’t the most comfortable of spaces and you might want to bring a coat if you’re watching something during winter time, but these are small prices to pay when you know you’ll be watching exciting new theatre that defies easy description. Although Stan’s Café’s increased profile means they now take their work around the world, the A.E. Harris Building remains their true home.