Issue 481
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I distinctly remember Virtual Reality arriving in Birmingham. It was 1993 and a company called Virtuality opened in The Arcadian. We flocked to play it, school kids giddy with excitement on the bus, only to be met with the overriding smell of vomit and a sea of motion sickness warning signs.

It was dreadful. Your legs would buckle, your head would spin and you'd cling to the rims of the machines for dear life. Then, for the best part of 30 odd years, not much changed until... BANG! VR venues opened everywhere, seemingly over night, with wildly varying levels of quality.      
I've played them all. Literally every single one of them. Not because I'm a VR obsessive, I'm really not, but because it's my job. I've shot zombies over and over again, sailed boats, wielded an axe, fought off giant animatronic ducks, played golf and defused bombs.

There have been moments where I've enjoyed them, absolutely, but ultimately, each and every time, I've been relieved when the mask has come off and always thought that maybe, just maybe, the game play isn't keeping up with the tech. Until now.  
Take a bow Sandbox VR in Grand Central and, specifically, their utterly outstanding Squid Game experience. If you've not seen Netflix's Squid Game or the reality TV spin-off, worry not. The pal who accompanied me for this one hadn't either, but that didn't prevent her from yelping that this was "the best thing ever!" about 15 minutes in to the game.    
Sandbox does the theatre of VR brilliantly. Their bar is manned by two robotic arms (above) that comfortingly spill enough drink on every pour to prove that Skynet is still some way off. But with the deep blues and neons you can't help but feel you're onboard the commercial space tug Nostromo, or drinking a double G&T with Rick Deckard and the boys. The staff members, each and every one of them, really good fun, too.  
But anyone can do theatre, just ask Frank Bruno. What really matters is the game play and how it syncs with the tech. Here's where Sandbox steals a march on everyone else. The equipment is light (but wear a t-shirt) you have an entire room to walk around for you and your chums and the games are, in a word, wonderful. 
Red Light, Green Light (above) that haunting first round in the TV show, is game number one — known in the UK as Grandma's Footsteps. As the killer doll looks away you're tasked with collecting coins until her head spins round again when you must, of course, remain perfectly still or she'll do away with you.

The wonderful thing is you know when you've slipped up — you can feel a leg wobble, or a hand flinch — and within seconds you're 'dead'. You can hear a pal drop an F-bomb before watching them zapped from existence by old creepy head. You do, of course, come back to life almost immediately. There is no time to be bored here. Only time to play. 
There can be up to six of you in the same room, during these games, laughing your backsides off when one of you is eliminated. And it's not scary. It really isn't. They've weighted it far in favour of enjoyment and away from the macabre elements of the Netflix show. There are still aspects of that, but this hasn't been devised to scare. My eleven-year-old has not seen the TV show, for example, but I would absolutely let her play this. 

Other games include Simon Says, a VR version of, essentially, that BBC game show Hole In The Wall (this one probably created the hardest laughs of the entire night) and a trapdoor style game that is play-it-to-believe it in its raw fun.
The way it works is that you all dash about trying to grab a golden bird and the first one to do so learns which trapdoor beneath your feet will open, dropping anyone unfortunate enough to be stood on it to their demise. You then decide whether to tell them which doors keep them safe in honesty, or whether to twist the truth and send them south. Remember, though, they might catch the golden bird next and tell you porky-pies.

This game was wildly enjoyable, Kirsty and I being truthful and keeping one another safe each and every time until the very last bird came out. I caught it and steered Kirst to one of the lethal trapdoors because, quite frankly, I was losing and I have a degree moral flexibility in situations like that.

She stood on the trapdoor waiting to see if I'd be honest (again) or not. I have no idea what she saw in my digital eyes as she looked at me but with half a second to spare she leapt from where she stood onto a safe trapdoor turning in time to see the floor she previously inhabited fall away. Not only had I betrayed her but she had seen through it and hurled herself to safety to claim the win for that round, and the evening as a whole. I've barely laughed that hard in my real life let alone my digital life, as she quite rightly gave me a colossal b*llocking for my treachery.     
Squid Game at Sandbox is a masterclass in tension and fun. A game play godsend in a world of overly complicated, unenjoyable VR. It's the Rolls-Royce of Virtual Reality and I cant wait to return. 

I mentioned earlier how I've always been relieved when the mask has come off. Not this time. Squid Game was so compelling and joyous and childish and pulse-pounding that I couldn't wait to crack on with another game. We played a fantasy adventure called Seekers of the Shard and, dear god, it was breath-takingly good also. I just don't have the space or energy to tell you about it, in full. 

Suffice to say Sandbox have cracked it. They've cracked VR. File this one alongside Flight Club in a very short inventory of genuinely outstanding examples of tech improving a night (or day) out. Top of the list, lads. Top of the list. ★★★★★      


It's a look only a very skilled musician can pull off, right? If you're not familiar with the lovable charm of Theo Katzman then do consider popping him on the old Spotify. He is extremely listenable. What's more he's on his way to Town Hall on March 6 as he tours his latest album Be The Wheel.
Katzman, for the uninitiated, is likely your favourite artist's favourite artist. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and member of the group Vulfpeck, brings with him an extraordinary energy, and a voice that reaches emotional heights with soaring falsettos. You know you're in the presence of talent. There's an optimism to his music, and an old school quality to his understated indie folk range.
It's an album that explores love, loss and emotional pain, and one that, by all reviews it seems, translates perfectly to live. If you're a fan you're most likely already booked to see him. If you're not yet a fan, then roll the dice on Katzman. He'll repay the gamble ten-fold. More     


Weekend plans? If you're lacking in them and you fancy something more than a smidgen iconic, how about An Officer And A Gentleman The Musical which opens at The Alexandra tomorrow (February 23) and runs until March 2?
The show stars Melanie Masson of The X-Factor fame as Esther Pokrifki and Tim Rogers (who tore it up during the West Side Story UK Tour) as Byron Mayo — or "MAYONNAISE!" as my dad reminds me he was nicknamed during the 80s Richard Gere movie, whenever the condiment is visible.
You know the drill. It's a love story of courage, and redemption that follows Mayo, a fearless young officer candidate, and the captivating Pokrifki, whose fiery spirit matches his own. Set to a smash-hit soundtrack featuring the songs of Madonna, Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, Blondie, and more, the power of music will carry you through the highs and lows of their story, including, of course, (Love Lift Us) Up Where We Belong. Book


Full of exuberance, energy and joy, 40/40 by Katherina Radeva is a funny, serious, and hopeful show which will curl up in your belly and make you want to move.

The show will be at the Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome from March 8 and 9, and I Choose Birmingham is pleased to offer readers a special £8 ticket. Presented by FABRIC, Birmingham’s dance development organisation, and the award-winning Two Destination Language, this critically acclaimed performance is the perfect celebration for International Women’s Day 2024.

If you're a fan of kitchen discos, if you've ever felt like you don't quite fit in, if you've had enough and just want to have fun — join Kat in her autobiographical show that combines storytelling with dancing, art and incredible 80's hits. 

It's a show about childhood parties, rhythm gymnastics, defiant divorce and dancing for the sheer joy of it. Kat puts it all on the floor as she interweaves open, honest voiceovers with great tunes, including the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams are Made of These, Nick Cave’s Rings of Saturn and loads more.

Kat says: "There are always points in life when a radical change occurs. For me, a moment like that is turning 40 — a marker of time and a marker of looking back and looking forward.” To claim your discounted tickets simply head here, choose your date, then click on the 'concessions' drop down menu (not the 'price band' drop down menu). Voila! 


Every now and then a show will come to Birmingham that will make me involuntarily emit a noise of such excitement that only dogs can hear it. This year it's Minority Report, which will play The Rep March 22 to April 6.

At the risk of sounding like one of those "the book was better than the movie" bores I am of the thinking that this will be a better production exactly because it's an adaptation of sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick's short story, rather than a stage version of the Tom Cruise movie, in which Tom Cruise runs even more than Tom Cruise usually runs.

Grittier, scarier than the Cruise-fest, this stage production is a tag team from Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. It's directed by Max Webster who has serious form in the shape of Macbeth, with Donmar Warehouse and Life of Pi – the Broadway, West End and UK Tour hit.

Featuring Jodie McNee (Orlando, Wyndhams Theatre; Cuckoo, Anatomy of a Suicide and Maryland, at the Royal Court) as Julia Anderton — a female lead replaces the male lead from both the book and the film — and Nick Fletcher (The Crucible, National Theatre; Anna Karenina, Sheffield Crucible) as George.

This innovative, brand-new stage adaptation is adapted by renowned writer and actor David Haig (My Boy Jack, The Good Samaritan), the thought-provoking play questioning our ideas of justice and the power of choice.

The premise? We're in London, in 2050, and neuroscientist, Dame Julia Anderton, is about to launch the next phase of her pioneering Pre-Crime programme, detaining people for crimes before they are committed. But when Julia is accused of pre-murder, she’s in a race against time to save herself from her own system. Book


Brummie, Chris Spencer — incorrectly known to the entire country as Cold War Steve — is the man behind one of the most surreal art projects in living memory. Since 2016 he's been Tweeting photoshopped dystopian images of bleak UK settings most of which include Eastenders star Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) looking hopelessly on at satirically dark scenes of politicians and celebrities. His collages have captured Brexit Britain, our country during COVID and any number of other wildly bleak, but somehow obscurely LOLzy historical moments, driving his following on Twitter alone to 430,000. Now, a new series of events launched by the team at Digbeth Dining Club, Second City's Finest, will celebrate some of the biggest and best names to come out of Brum, by inviting them to a Q&A-style evening at Hockley Social Club. And Chris will be "in conversation" on April 2, with tickets costing just £10. He'll be talking about how he started all of this on his way to work on a Birmingham bus, photoshopping as he went, and where it has all taken him now. I know he will, because I'll be asking the questions! I'm bound to say this then, but it's not one to miss. A proper hero of Birmingham, and he will HATE IT when I call him that. Book


Millennium Point has announced an exclusive showing of acclaimed docudrama LOVE?, with live introduction from writer and actress Samantha Beckinsale. Born out of lived experiences and the creative vision of Samantha, award-winning director and editor Jason Figgis, producer Simon W. Golding, and composer Scott Buckley, the film is a feature-length docudrama depicting coercive control, which is one of the least recognised forms of domestic abuse. The film has already welcomed incredible early reviews with Domestic Abuse Specialist Nicky Brindley MBE describing it as “a true masterpiece”, and Domestic Abuse Advocate Dorothy Zimmerman hailing it as a “revelation to start a revolution.” West Mids audiences will now be able to see it at an exclusive free screening on Millennium Point’s giant screen, Friday, March 8. Writer and star, Samantha Beckinsale will be joining the event to introduce the film. Samantha said: "Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, be perpetrated by anyone, and has common patterns across the world. By spreading this message via our film, we hope to help people recognise the signs and effect of domestic abuse and the tactics used by perpetrators of these crimes. Coercive control kills and without a fist being raised.” Book 


Leftfield, Yussef Dayes and The Blackbyrds are among the headline acts set to join the previously announced Kool and The Gang at Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival, July 12 to 14.

Other acts heading to the Birmingham festival’s main stages include Mo’Wax and Unkle’s James Lavelle (DJ set), Mr Scruff, Glaswegian soundsystem Mungo’s Hi Fi with Marina P, Grammy-nominated James Hunter, primordial groovers Thumpasaurus, New Orleans’ dynamo Dawn Richard, and Ezra Collective’s Ife Ogunjobi.

Formed in 1988, Leftfield (Friday) quickly became one of the most influential and innovative dance music acts of all time. 1995's Leftism and 1999's Rhythm and Stealth were both Mercury Music Prize nominees, solidifying their position as true pioneers.

Revered multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer Yussef Dayes' (Saturday) debut solo album, Black Classical Music, made an instant impact when it dropped last autumn, prompting two BRIT Award nominations (for best new Artist and Best Alternative Act). Yussef is widely recognised as one of the most electrifying live performers of his generation.

Assembled by legendary Donald Byrd in 1973, The Blackbyrds (Saturday) laid the foundations for the jazz-funk movement. With such tracks as Do It Fluid, Walking In Rhythm, Happy Music and the iconic Rock Creek Park, their music has been widely sampled by such acts as De La Soul and Massive Attack.

Other acts heading to Mostly Jazz include Ryan Hope (one third of Gabriels), multi-instrumentalist corto.alto, Jorja Smith labelmates Bricknasty, Canadian hip hop collective Super Duty Tough Work, London-based soul ensemble Wonder 45, and Luke Una. Tickets on sale tomorrow (Friday, Feb 23) at 10am.
Edgbaston's Lux Gallery has announced their latest exhibition, All That Glitters, which showcases a varied selection of artworks for home or office. Fill that blank spot on the wall with them. Good people, doing good things. 

Masterchef: The Professionals winner Stu Deeley has taken up the role of Exec Chef at the brilliant Laghi's Deli, Five Ways. He'll be unveiling a new menu on March 12. Details

The new-new-Snobs nightclub will open on March 13 and even if you're too past it to be visiting at any point for the rest of your life (I am), well, the big ugly heads they've had made (here) and the trademark wall faces are worth a look.

The relaunched The Bracebridge in Sutton Park looks the part, while a smokehouse has opened in Shirley and new owners have re-opened Bun & Barrel in Harborne. 
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICTURES: Marc S Brenner (Minority Report)

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"You’ve probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law."

Minority Report, Philip K Dick

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