Issue 447
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"I MENTIONED THE ZOOM CONNECTION ONCE BUT I THINK I GOT AWAY WITH IT"

The interactive theatre event of the year and runaway West End success, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience, is heading for the Banqueting Suite of Birmingham's Council House, this year. We had a fittingly farcical Zoom call with Brum-based Ed Howells (who plays Manuel) and Wolverhampton born Suzanne Hughes (who plays Sybil) prior to their October 26 to November 5 residency, and what will be a homecoming of sorts for both of them...
Suze: Oh fudge. Is this on? Oh I hate these bloody things. I'm going to have to leave and come back in, aren't I. Can you hear me? Hang on...

(Two minutes later)

Suze: Okay it's working now, I think. I'm just not going to touch anything. Nine times out of ten I manage to f*ck it up — wait you're recording this aren't you? (Slipping into the King's English) Well hello, good sir. I'm terribly efficient with things like this. How do you do?

ICB: Very well, thank you Suze. I see Ed has joined us now, too. Hi Ed. Tell me, is there pressure taking on such iconic roles?
Ed: Hello! Yes, when I first played Manuel, back in 2012 I felt pressure, for sure. There's also a lot to remember, positions to remember and even improvisational elements to stay on top of. The logistics of immersive theatre perhaps provide an element of pressure over and above the actual roles. Sometimes those added pressures distract you from how beloved the character you are playing might be, which can be a bonus. Having done it several hundred times, though, there's less of it now.

Suze: I'm a lot better at that pressure than the pressure of successfully joining a Zoom call, that's for sure. But people do love these characters and they have done for years and years. They have a character in their heads and you have to go out, in the opening scene, and do it justice. But if you crack that in the right way then you've got them for the rest of the show.

Ed: It helps that people arrive wanting to believe you're Manuel and Sybil. They want to buy into it, so you're halfway there, hopefully, from the outset.

What percentage of the show is improvised and what percentage is scripted. Surely you need to get from A to B?
Ed:
The show has a structure so it all runs to time and there are very definite scripted sections, but everything in between is ad-libbed. We are given a lot of freedom to go off script if the opportunity presents itself. Which it always, always does. It's maybe up to 70% improvised depending on what's happening on the day.
Is this the way theatre is going? More and more interactivity?
Suze: When the company started, in 1997, it was one of the first of its kind and it's become so incredibly popular because people want to be part of the world which they are visiting, and that's why it works so very well. But you mentioned getting from A to B, well we also invariably go via R, S, P, Q, one, four and seven. We're zig-zagging all over the place and I think that ability comes from having done it for so long. But it remains fresh, of course, because no two nights are the same.

Have you both been through all 12 episodes with a fine-toothed comb, or is that something you could do too much of?
Suze: I wouldn't say I've been through them with a fine-toothed comb but I've seen them a lot, yes. It's one of those shows that if it's on TV I literally can't switch it over because I feel this wild sense of loyalty to it. But there are only 12 episodes so you have to extrapolate your character out. You need to connect with how they would be in these new situations.

How much do the general public remain in the supporting role and how often do they tend to want to be a main part?
Ed: They can get over-excited. I remember in my early days of playing Manuel and we were performing in Mansfield. I'd maybe played the part only 20 times and it was the middle of the afternoon. And one guy had clearly been drinking since who knows when and at one point he slung me over his shoulder and carted me out the room! I can't even remember what happened next. I think I screamed for Basil. Might be best not to go that far, if you're coming along...
And you're Birmingham-based, right Ed?
Ed: Yeah I live in Edgbaston, sort of. Between Five Ways and Bearwood, on The Hagley Road.

How do you think a Birmingham audience will receive the show?
Ed: Brummies love to laugh. They want to have a good time. You get that in major cities but it's really pronounced here in Birmingham. They're very willing to suspend disbelief and buy into it. It's always a great night.

Suze: Hello, can you hear me? I think I got frozen out. Brummies? Without doubt. They love a laugh. We've actually played the Council House before, pre-COVID, and they were all absolute crackers. And it's a stunning building. The Council House [pictured, above] plays a fantastic part in the show because it's a spectacular venue. When you walk in and head up the staircase you can feel you're somewhere rather special. And you can imagine how much Basil will be swanning around, Lord of the Manor, right? Sybil's going to give it a bit of a revamp before she gets there too. You're going to love it.

What's the process on the day? Are audiences thrown straight into it? Do you eat first?
Ed: Everyone congregates in the bar area where you can get some drinks. Manuel is always the first person in the room and we do what we call a 'soft start'. I'll be there, then Basil, then Sybil. And a bit of a scene will take place. The laughs will come early on. Then we will go through for a meal and soup is served and another scene. Main course, more scripted business and then absolute chaos unfolds. And then we hand the space back over to those that run it to deliver dessert in peace. It works very well. Tried and tested even if the actual show remains so varied.

You both come across as naturally funny. Do you need to be for roles like this?
Ed:
I think you do, yeah. But if you expect something to be funny it often isn't. How do I explain? You have to play it quite straight. There are elements about you that will aid the comedy, maybe in so little as a facial expression, but sometimes the less you play it "funny" the funnier it will be. It lands better that way. Perhaps it's more believable.

Suze: Yep, I was frozen out again.

Welcome back. You can imagine Sybil would hate modern tech just as much as you are right now.
Suze: Absolutely! There are a few similarities between Sybil and I and that is just one of them.

The audience, Suze, do they tend to be purely Fawlty die-hards?
Suze: Oh no. We had a seven-year-old's birthday party at the last one we did and the boy dressed as Basil! It's very family friendly. Younger audience members tend to really love the farce and the slapstick between Basil and Manuel. It's fast enough for modern comedy but has plenty of references to please the older fans too. If you've never seen the TV show before it will be the weirdest two hours of your life, but in the best way possible. We've had tourists who have fallen into the show and it's wonderful to witness their total confusion.

Ed: Years ago Suze and I performed it in the Middle East, in Bahrain, and some of those audiences were suitably baffled by it all. Didn't we Suze? Suze?

Suze has gone again, Ed. Let's cut our losses with my final question: Will it be nice to play your home crowd?
Very much so. My wife's never seen me play Manuel so she's going to come along. The in-laws too, so it's very much a home crowd vibe for me. Come along, Brummies, one and all. It'll run better than Suze's Zoom connection, I promise.

Faulty Towers The Dining Experience plays at The Council House, Oct 26 to Nov 5. Tickets

1000 FREE DRINKS AT
BOX BRINDLEYPLACE 


Perhaps the most common question I get asked is "where can I watch sport that isn't on Broad Street" and I never have a decent response. Well happy day because BOX Bar is opening in Brindleyplace and it looks to be the answer to our prayers when it opens on June 3, in time for the FA Cup Final. What's more, they're giving 1000 beers away to 1000 people who sign up to their mailing list, right here

The creators of BOX are promising a game changer — and boy do we need one — not just in terms of size and offering but in that winning combo of watch, play and party. The massive 10,000sq ft venue is spread over two floors and the ground floor alone has 32 tip-top TV screens. Upstairs will also feature two 18-foot maple wood shuffleboards.

BOX is introducing a live band every Friday and Saturday, along with luxury karaoke booths for the booking. The food menu includes hot honey and n’duja pizza, a pizza fondue, plus Detroit-style deep dish pizzas while the drinks menu will have a dedicated tequila-based cocktails section and something called a Pornstar Steintini!

So, to help celebrate the launch, simply sign up to their mailing list and BOX will email 1000 people chosen at random a unique code and details on how to claim a BrewDog Lost Lager, a Margarita cocktail or a soft drink. You have until June 2 to subscribe. Good luck! 

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
  

Birmingham Royal Ballet is coming in HOT this June with the much loved 'Still Life' At The Penguin Café, choreographed by ya boi Sir David Bintley.

The Triple Bill runs June 8 to 11 and also features George Balanchine’s Apollo, and BRB’s acclaimed 2022 ballet Interlinked by choreographer Juliano Nunes, all accompanied by live music performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Quite the team-up.

'Still Life' At The Penguin Café features a host of endangered animals — in dancer form —who seek shelter from the storm. Featuring a morris-dancing flea, a ballroom-dancing ram, a hoe-downing rat (looking forward to that one, in particular), a majestic zebra (above) and many more, it's a bittersweet and poignant look at human impact on the world. Spoiler: We've not done so great. All this is danced to Simon Jeffes’s delightful score, originally composed for the world famous Penguin Café Orchestra.

Brilliant young Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nunes’s Interlinked was premiered in summer 2022 as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival. Described by The Grauniad as “stretching ballet’s mould” with a specially composed score by Australian composer Luke Howard, this beautifully abstract piece explores ideas of grace, beauty and harmony in ways that push the usual boundaries of classical dance. Apollo, meanwhile, highlights the genius of its creator, the then 24-year-old, Balanchine, and launched his lifelong partnership with the composer Igor Stravinsky who, I gather, was alright at that music malarkey.

Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta, said: "This programme really has something for everyone and demonstrates a continuation of our desire at BRB to present and perform work that highlights the company’s rich repertoire whilst presenting new works by the best choreographers of today." From £16

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT 


If Ikon has made a name for itself as one of the UK's most acclaimed free art galleries — and it has — then in their next exhibition they're not so much pushing the envelope, but folding it into a paper plane and flying fifty metres. Check this out...

Running from now to September 3 it's the first UK solo show by acclaimed Indonesian artist, Melati Suryodarmo, and its going to blow minds. There will be installations in situ throughout the four-month exhibition but Melati's work will also include in-person performances from both herself and over 50 associated artists that promise to test the limits of the human mind and body. 

Since the 1990s, Suryodarmo has created durational performances, installations and films that merge live art with sculpture, drawing and time-based media. Her work is inspired by Javanese cultural traditions such as sumarah: a meditation that seeks to achieve heightened sensitivity and acceptance through deep relaxation. She'll need that, big time, tomorrow (May 19) when she will perform her longest and most gruelling work, I'm a Ghost in My Own House (above). For a 12-hour period (10am to 10pm) on Ikon's first floor (and, yes, free to attend — God bless that gallery) Melati will physically grind blocks of charcoal with a stone rolling pin. Over and over and over again. As you can tell by the photo, this isn't her first time embarking on this artistic expression of endurance that nods not just to the estrangement she felt upon returning to Indonesia in 2014 but here, in the West Mad-lands, evokes the Black Country's long coal mining history.  

If you can't attend tomorrow, fear not, the stage doubles as an installation and, following the performance, audiences can see the artist's blackened dress, charcoal pit and video documentation alongside charcoal rubbings on paper which mirror the brutal gestures of Suryodarmo's performance. If you can attend tomorrow, quite frankly, you must. This is one of those challenging, fascinating and, I'll say it, wildly unusual pieces of performance art that places Ikon leagues ahead of 99% of other UK galleries. Never playing it easy. Never boring. 

"It'll be a serious test for Melati," says Melanie Pocock, Ikon’s Acting Artistic Director (Exhibitions) who is wide-eyed with excitement about the next few months and talks with a refreshing accessibility you don't often find in the hierarchy of the galleriesphere. She has a way of making art get-at-able

"I've run marathons in my time," says Melanie. "And the best parallel I can draw is how meditative it can be to run for long periods. A marathon is a battle of body and mind, of course it is, but the rhythm of the process can be relaxing and meditative when you get in your stride. It's those qualities Melati will be channeling when she's here on Friday. It's going to be a different experience for everyone who stops by. Come for 5 minutes or come for five hours. But do come."

It'll be an epic performance and I don't mean 'epic' in the way people describe burgers these days. I mean properly epic. But I'm a Ghost in My Own House is just the tip of the iceberg. Go along to witness a giant tree made out of clothes on which performers will spend hours perched above gallery visitors, as well as video footage of the not one, but two times Melati filmed herself trying to stand on blocks of butter for an hour, non stop. It might raise a smile at first, but the more you watch the tougher it gets and the more you start to consider the meaning. More
Venue: Mi Bánh Mì, Mezzanine Floor, Yen Thanh Supermarket, 5 Wrottesley Street, China Town. Facebook 
Choice: Hanoi Special (£7.95) Chooser: FoodieBoys

In my on-going role as Hype Man for Brum's foremost semi-faux food blog, 
FoodieBoys, I was tipped off by the man himself about a bánh mì place on Wrottesley Street, which is the quieter road of the two that Chung Ying straddles.

Bánh mì, but you know this, is a Vietnamese street food baguette that has some of its origins in the country's French colonial years, hence the bread always bangs and you'll find atypical Far East Asian ingredients like pâté in there. Writer Rob, (FoodieBoys) once lived in Vietnam but you'll be hard-pressed to hear him talk about it (wink emoji) and he has long longed for a city centre bánh mì joint. And, in his words he "could have wept" when he sunk his teeth into a Hanoi Special.

So I went. In a city with a serious lack of quality sandwich options, this crispy (not crunchy) baguette housed supple pork and zingy hits of pickles, chilli and rich pâté. Textures, flavours and that little jig of joy you get having hunted out an actual hidden gem, make this a blinding find. Warming, but not a winter bite, this could be the summer lunch port of call I over visit until I've gone off it. It's that damn good.

It's an interesting place too, housed on the mezzanine floor of Yenh Than Supermarket, complete with table football. You'll find signs for Yenh Than and Mi Bánh Mì lit up outside the shop. Head in, and up, and order. The owner, Mi Hoang is an absolute champion. She moved to the UK from Vinh Phuc (near Hanoi) in 2015, first to London but then up to the West Mids when her husband's work brought them this way.

"When we moved to the UK," she told me "I really missed some of my home foods. I started to make them myself at home, and after lots of refinement felt ready to make them available for others. We registered with Solihull Council and received a perfect 5-star Food Hygiene Rating (with zero markdowns). We love bánh mì most and so had a food hut made for use at events to sell it. Looking back, it's the feedback from those customers that put the fire in our hearts to open a store.

"I found people here in Birmingham to be so welcoming and friendly, even the bus drivers would go out of their way to assist me with getting off at the right stop. I found a vibrant Vietnamese community here too, so we settled. We were about to open our first store when COVID-19 hit. The community showed us wonderful support throughout, and we were able to ship meals, online, as far as Northern Ireland. We were also able to work with a local charity to provide meals to the NHS front line staff, which was a privilege. As soon as things began to return to normality, we opened our first store.   

"I tried using local bakers for bread but they just couldn't get it quite right — the Vietnamese way. Authenticity becomes an addiction and in pursuit of it we had no option but to open our own bakery. We make everything in-house: bread, pâté, mayonnaise, sausage meat, everything. It's the only way to get it authentically perfect."

Mi is hoping to have an alcohol license soon and is also keen to supply business customers for lunchtime meetings and whatnot. Pop in and say hello. Tell her we sent you.


Menu and other helpful bits and bobs on our Instagram here 

DEADBEAT BY BONEHEAD 


A new, neighbourhood dive bar from the team behind cult fried chicken success story, Bonehead, will open in Stirchley on June 1 before inviting a rostrum of top Brum chefs to provide pop-up eats throughout the opening months. 

Deadbeat will be a lo-fi creative space showcasing music, wine, beer and, of course, food. There's a handpicked wine list by Wine Freedom, six rotating beers on tap (Spatten Helles, Bitburger Pils, Duvel 666, Shofferhoffer Raddler and two IPAs) plus house cocktails.

With a brutalist dive bar aesthetic, dim lighting, walls clad with posters embracing alternative music and art, Deadbeat looks to be, maybe, Bonehead's quieter older brother. Which is probably for the best. 

On food, local genius chef Lap Fai Lee will kick off proceedings with his full pig pop-up, SWÏNEBAR, June 21 to 25 followed by short residencies by an extraordinary set of talented chefs from Koba-Ko (Sam Hill), Riverine Rabbit (Ash Valenzuela-Heeger) and Kings Heath's Upstairs (Matt Wilden). Brad Carter may also be swinging by with kebabs at some point.

After all that, and perhaps in between too, expect an in-house menu consisting of six plates and bar food. But that's all they're saying just now. Follow
Robot Dogs will be at Birmingham City University's Inspired Festival Family Day on June 10 and that's probably all you need to know to be sold on the idea. If you need a little more (more than ROBOT DOGS??) then visitors can build their very own city of the future, find out what it's like to be a television presenter, climb inside a training ambulance, experience virtual reality and play with green screen tech. Free

One of the restaurant tie-ups of the year, surely, has to be Brum newbies Bundobust tag-teaming with rock & roll fine diners The Wilderness in advance of the former's launch on Bennett's Hill, this summer. Six courses for only £60 also makes it a steal. May 23 

Speaking of collabs, Dishoom are popping up at Couch (Stirchley), June 11. Full details  

A Wes Anderson party is heading for the Mockingbird cinema in mid-June and this promo vid is a lovely bit of marketing for it

Good quality pub theatre is coming to Moseley's Dark Horse with new and original musical dramedy After This Plane Has Landed, which documents the real-life experiences of Jill Morrell and John McCarthy. The couple made headlines in 1986 when John, a British journalist, was kidnapped in war-torn Beirut. More

Middle East street food stars Cleopatra's Kitchen have got themselves proper digs in Shirley. More 

This Sunday (May 21) Pip & Pals market rolls into Attic Brew Co. Independent shopping *and* beer! 

The 'Everything to Everybody' Project is collaborating with photographer Alan Gignoux for an exhibition called 'You can see me, but I don’t exist' which shows Gignoux shots alongside creative writing by people seeking refuge in Birmingham, London, and Manchester. At the Shakespeare Memorial Room (Library of Birmingham) May 31 to Aug 7. More

No issue of ICB next week but we're back with a bumper issue on June 1.
Be excellent to each other.
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICS: Ron Rutten (Faulty)


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American Guest: Is there anywhere they do French food?
Basil: Yes, France, I believe. They seem to like it there. And the swim would certainly sharpen your appetite. You’d better hurry, the tide leaves in six minutes.




Fawlty Towers
 



 
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