So VR-naive am I and my by-now regular gaming partner — combined age 81— that last time we played virtual reality in Brum, we remained in one room for over 80% of the duration, completely unaware that you could open doors with keys and explore vast areas. You are, however, at almost every VR venue in the country limited by a claustrophobic and increasingly hot pod in the real world, jogging on the spot to move you character through his or her virtual realm.
Perhaps that's the key reason why The Park Playground, which launched in Brindleyplace last week, is absolutely streets ahead of anything else the city has to offer. And, one suspects, one of the very best VR experiences in Europe, given the Belgian-born company's success has seen them launch in 12 locations across the continent as well as in Brisbane, and now, Brum.
Because at The Park Playground, which neighbours the Sealife Centre and sits opposite Bill Clinton's The Malt House, you have an enormous hall to explore — and I don't mean virtually. If you make good across open land in the digi-world you'll be walking in the real world too and it's this USP — giving players back that human instinct to stride and explore as they feel comfortable — that has raised decent VR gaming into truly immersive territory.
But of equal importance is The Park Playground's cutting edge tech. Those hefty and clunky Ghostbusters-esque backpacks and Matrix-level plugins and cables are all gone. All you need is goggles, a gun and, it turns out, balls of pure steel.
Before you set off on the VR adventure proper you'll be introduced to smaller games to get you used to the virtual world. The Plank is a standout option here, a real thigh-wobbler of an experience which sees you rise in an elevator to the roof of a skyscraper before tentatively shuffling your way out over the city on a both real and virtual plank, one of which sits on terra firma, the other very much not (above). Watching your pal flat refuse to take even one step out of the safety of his cybernated lift will be your biggest laugh of the month whereas if you do manage to get to the end, you'l be invited to step off and plummet 29-storeys to your virtual demise. Everything in your body will be screaming at you not to do it and that's testament to how very real it all feels, your toes curled and clinging to the corners of a plastic plank on a carpet. Brilliant.
If The Plank was a test of the individual then The Hallow was very much an emotive group experience. We were teamed up with lovely representatives from Stirchley-based Birmingham Brewing Co, most of them being brewers themselves and whose beers are on sale at the venue, before being lifted from present day Brum and placed in 1800s backwater America, into woodland area that is very much under zombie siege.
Now, there are obviously limits to how far you can wander. You can't pop down to Brindleyplace's nearby canal and continue to make the undead dead again. Red barriers will appear in your virtual world to warn you away from travelling outside the gaming zone, but other than that it's a remarkably natural experience, something that until this point could never have been said about VR. One need only remember when the first virtual reality experience landed in Brum, in the Arcadian Centre in the mid-90s, and motion sickness-induced vomit was desperately scrubbed from the equipment on a regular basis.
None of that here, the only sickness you're at risk of at The Park Playground is the small matter of zombie virus.
The game itself — as with all six available to choose from, from futuristic combat to VR Escape Rooms — is quite, quite brilliant. There is a loose plot, much of which I missed as brewers and e-magazine publishers alike laughed nervously over the virtual games masters prologue. It mattered not a jot. You're being attacked by zombies and at all times you have a choice of three weapons (rifle, shotgun, crossbow) with which to defend yourself and your fellow teammates — you'll know who's who by the names above their heads.
What was astonighing was how the six of us instinctively took up a perimeter, each with a weapon pointed into the bushes and trees covering a different angle of attack, the only noise coming back being rain and a nearby running river. I've rarely experienced gaming-triggered adrenaline like it, scanning behind me to see the whole posse of players waiting, nervously. Shuffling on the spot, trying to keep their powder dry for the onslaught.
And then, of course, all f*cking hell breaks loose. Zombies are coming from every angle, that trademark slow but steady progress of theirs easily halted at times but increasingly more and more difficult.
It might be the school kid in me but there's something so exhilarating about holding a fake gun — all the way back to Duck Hunt — and I've always felt in VR shooters prior to this, that's what's been missing. The tools so often used for rifles and the like are usually two separate handheld controllers with a dizzying array of buttons and capabilities. Until this point virtual reality had felt like a game for people who are willing to persevere with it — financially as well as hourly — learning to the point of muscle memory what button or movement does what while the rest of us get flustered and give up, relieved if anything, when the goggles finally come off.
Here, though, the fun is in the simplicity. I mean, of course Rob and I were abysmal at it, coming predictably fifth and sixth, but the buzz of blowing the brains out of zombies for thirty minutes and wanting to do it again the moment it's over was one I'd never felt before. An absolutely outstanding user experience whether you're a lifelong gamer or, like us, more skilled with beer than VR.
The Park Playground is now open at 3 Brindleyplace and they're offering 'I Choose Birmingham' readers 25% off when you use the code ICHOOSEVR before checkout. Book
EID ON THE HEATH
The ever active Kings Heath community and those from further afield, including people from all faiths, are coming together again, July 2, to celebrate Eid, at All Saints Square (above).
Curated and presented by Soul City Arts in conjunction with Kings Heath BID, it'll be the first public Eid event to take place outdoors on the High Street. Art and food are at the heart of the matter with visual art installations a focal point, during which live-painters will be making mesmerising murals throughout the day.
"Birmingham doesn't really provide enough spaces for people of all backgrounds to come together," says Artistic Director of Soul City Arts, Mohammed Ali MBE, the man behind that 'I Can't Breathe' stencil, this event and so much more. "So we have to create these spaces ourselves. Our faith celebrations can and should take place with the wider community regardless of background, and that's why we're hosting this, to break down some barriers. The same should apply to restaurants and shops, so we've invited some well-established businesses to come together with others that exist perhaps a little on the fringes. We’re creating a much-needed space where it’s not just the usual suspects. We're bringing businesses out to show off their food and their skills in the most visible of settings."
It's a refreshing list of venues and traders taking part. Try traditional Arabic food from Old Damascus, or Malaysian dishes from Satay Birmingham. The Milkcake Man (Sheraz Anwar — who was working 12-hour days on buses before lockdown) is bringing his colourful desserty creations (like the saffron milkcake, below) while Ever So Sweet are also bringing mighty pud to the 'hood. Plant N Plate are on the vegan pots and pans, Moroccan Givings will be showcasing berber rugs and handcrafted homewares, and henna skin artists will also be onsite offering skin glam-ups. There'll be graffiti lettering workshops too.
If you want a small insight into how good the artwork is going to be check out the Instagram of artists Martin Travers, Will Baras and Asia Alfasi. Music will come from, among others, Gambian griot, Seikou Susso, who you may have heard playing his kora (West African guitar) on the High Street over recent years.
Eid in Kings Heath is hoped to become an annual thing, after Soul City Arts were awarded Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation status after 15 years of graft serving the community through the arts. The event runs from 12pm to 6pm (July 2), on the corner of Vicarage Rd and High Street, in front of the All Saints Church. The event is supported by Birmingham City Council. Watch the trailer here
HE'LL BE THERE FOR YOU
Before Rembrandt and family wrote the Friends theme tune he was a halfway-decent artist, proof of which has never been so apparent in Brum than right now. This summer, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts is showcasing an extraordinary selection of Dutch and Flemish 17th-century masterpieces from Woburn Abbey — and the OG himself, Remmy B, is well involved.
Featuring a dozen Old Master paintings, the exhibition is one of the largest and most significant groups of such works from this important collection to be exhibited in a public gallery since the '50s. Mastering the Market, which focuses on the themes of patronage and collecting, is curated by four Art History and Curating MA students from the University of Birmingham, with guidance and supervision from experts at both the Barber Institute and Woburn.
The burgeoning wealth and rise of the merchant classes in the Netherlands in the 17th century sparked huge demand for properly pricy portrait commissions, which the Barber exhibition examines, offering fresh interpretations. Assembled principally by the 4th, 5th and 6th Dukes of Bedford (three of the very best dukes of Bedford, I'm sure you'll agree) between the 1730s and 1830s, the Woburn Abbey collection includes superb portraits and head studies by Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck, landscapes and seascapes by Aelbert Cuyp and Jan van de Cappelle, and lively subject pictures by Jan Steen and David Teniers the Younger.
Perhaps the rock-star loan, though, is Rembrandt’s Portrait of a bearded Old Man, 1643, which is almost 3D, so skilled is the painting. You know you're in the presence of greatness when you stand with it: you can feel the intense look on the Rabbi's face deep into your corneas, while the wrinkle detail on his face and hands and his almost translucent skin is the hallmark of genius.
Left high on a library wall for more than half a century, nobody thought much of it until it was authenticated as a genuine Rembrandt, ten years ago. And the identification – by the world's leading expert on the 17th-century Dutch master – immediately added a multimillion pound ker-ching to its price-tag.
Venue: Riverine Rabbit @ The Juke, 16 York Rd, Kings Heath, B14 7RZ; Instagram Choice: One of everything (£80) Chooser: Ash and Erin
To say I've hit a purple patch on dining out would be an understatement. I'm on fire. If I were playing NBA Jam my next three pointer would set the net ablaze. But, I'm told, my astute decision making, as worldly wise as it is, can't take all the credit. Apparently the restaurants themselves play a fairly key role.
And so we arrive at The Riverine Rabbit, the pop-up pair of former Carters-ite, Ash Valenzuela-Heeger on drums... sorry pans... and her wife Erin rocking the front of house.
South African Ash ran the Riverine Rabbit, Cape Town, prior to taking a Sous Chef role at Carters. It's with Erin's help, though, that Ash has now gone solo and you should, I swear to the great mushroom god, be moving heaven and Earth and everything else in between to pay them a visit. You can do that now at The Juke (Kings Heath, tonight to Sunday) or July 20 to 23 at Deadbeat (Stirchley) or during their three week residency at Verbena in August.
I almost don't know where to begin on how good the food was, but with chronological inevitability I'll probably start with the first dish and progress onwards — but I should say their menu does change on the regs.
Gilda is a Basque pintxo of anchovy, olive and pickled peppers on a cocktail stick and it's saltier than a Daily Mail Meghan Markle splash. Nought to 60 in about seven bites. Old Bay devilled egg follows, fluffy and fun (a sense of child-like joy runs throughout the menu) followed by chicken salt crisps and caviar on a soothing and sultry whipped sour cream, given a gentle nudge by wild garlic oil and chopped chive. Smiles from ear-to-ear.
Whipped cod's roe with potato waffles continue the kid-ish but well executed free spiritedness, before a wedge salad and dressed tomatoes rock up. Those tomatoes — what witchcraft? They have a bacon-y quality to them but, of course, they're entirely veggie. You must order these.
What happens next, though, is pure poetry. Like, Hall of Famer food. Prawns in sobrasada are so good the pair of us were slurping hungrily on the heads to drain the brains, like middle-aged zombies who had just been playing Virtual Reality. An ugly sight, but who cares?
If the hay smoked salmon was good then the crab muffin (above) was immaculate. Fresh and alive, yet homely and squidgy, the brown butter hollandaise offers both depth and viv to the subtle crustacean. This is living.
Raw beef flatbread with cheese wiz (see — good fun this) was another of those happy-making numbers with a hint of homeliness (although my mum rarely intentionally served raw beef) while the lamb with anchovy, tomato and wild garlic packed the most intense taste with the crispy meat coating your entire palette in flavour.
Strawbs with vanilla and coconut cream cleansed that palette while beers from The Juke paired sublimely with the sparing saltiness and richness of the savouries. At £80 before drinks for absolutely all of the above — easily enough for two, probably too much if we're honest — this is remarkable value.
Ten out of ten, no further notes.
FRIDAYS ARE BACK ON THE MENU
Brum-born and bred coffee gods, Urban, are making fresh waves in the city's Friday night dinner scene thanks to some genuinely original food pop-uppery from the hands of their talented chefs.
Until now known mostly for their cwoiffee and lighter daytime bites, the evening events have been smooshed into the spotlight thanks to group chief baker, Amara-Rose Bytheway (pictured), and Urban's head chef over at their JQ venue, Carla Buckley, after both were given free rein to devise forthcoming nights.
First up is Amara-Rose's Lebanese evening, herself having Lebanese heritage. For £25.95 (or £39.95 with bottomless prosecco, Punk IPA or Thatcher’s), you'll be served a vibrant and zingy three-courser.
For starters, pick between three pitta dishes. The veggie option is falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and pickled turnip while the meaty options are chicken shish taouk, hummus and harissa dip or lamb kofta, baba ghanoush and mint yoghurt. Phwoar.
Mains look equally outrageous. Chickpea and Moroccan veg tagine, vermicelli rice, and batata harra goes up against mixed grill or samke harra (spicy tahini fish). Coconut mahalabia or pistachio mafroukeh truffles with sweet coconut cream top-off the Friday, June 30, beaut of a menu.
A week later it's Carla's turn where her JQ Urban spot celebrates the US's southern states for an evening of soul food and Blues music. This one is a little different — it's a fiver in (which will go towards live tunes from Smokin’ Ade Wakelin’, a fab five-piece Brummie Blues ensemble) and then an a la carte menu where you can pick as little or as much as you like.
Wings (both chicken and cauli) will be flying out in Buffalo or Kentucky incarnations while cajun shrimp skewers, homemade nachos and sweetcorn fritters will also be jostling for your approval. It being Friday night you might as well go big too, with mac‘n’four cheese topped with your choice of fried chicken, beef brisket, or BBQ jackfruit, or perhaps the cajun shrimp stew on a bed of creamy mash? Homemade beignets (yikes) or pecan pie with whipped cream will send you headlong into the weekend with an 11.30pm late finish should you be enjoying yourself. Which you will be given it's two cocktails for £12 all night.
The Crescent Theatre are performing two showings of the The Taming of the Shrew in the gardens of Blakesley Hall, July 8 and 9. From £9. More —
The Mockingbird Cinema are going all-in on the launch of the Barbie movie. Themed cocktails, food served in pink Cadillac trays, fancy dress and more. The Friday filled out fast but there are still a handful of tickets for the Saturday (July 22) if you're very quick. Facebook —
A different sort of barbie — from June 30 to July 2 — Andy Low N Slow is resident under the arches at Kilder. Walk-ins only — Moseley Farmers Market is this Saturday (June 24) and Harborne Carnival is this Sunday (June 25). —
Kings Heath based Hong Kong cafe, Blow Water, are taking over Birmingham’s highest roof terrace — Eighteen Club Space — which is part of the colossal 103 Colmore Row building. Expect BBQ and dumplings. It's £34.60 for Early Bird tickets and the date is August 5 (Saturday). —
Eat Vietnam are doing Sunday lunch, July 2. It's £35 for three courses (beef or veg) 12pm to 4.30pm. Details —
Birmingham Indian Film Festival begins tomorrow (June 23) and runs until July 2. Full schedule
WORDS: Tom Cullen
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