Tag Archives: brindley place

Berlin Love Tour

Last Thursday night I went on a tour of Berlin…in Birmingham. Part of the fantastic Fierce Festival of live art, Berlin Love Tour was a guided tour of the German capital city through the streets of Birmingham, led by Hilary O’Shaughnessy. Hilary, as she explained at the outset, had lived (and loved) in Berlin after leaving her native Ireland. The Berlin Love Tour came from an idea by O’Shaughnessy and Tom Creed, and was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010.

Meeting outside the Crescent Theatre (a local gem just off Brindley Place and Broad Street) were around 15 to 20 people ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties all wrapped up warm in the bitter cold. As we gathered we were accompanied by what looked like a busker with a guitar; however, his clean and smart-ish attire gave him away as part of the performance. We were then greeted by Hilary, who warned us against jaywalking (illegal in Berlin) and also that anyone expecting an erotic tour would be disappointed. She introduced us to the key themes of the performance: what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s been destroyed and what remains. It was clear from the outset that the legacy of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Berlin Wall would be all pervading during the next two hours.

First stop was the Palast der Republik, a relic of the East German past which housed galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The Birmingham backdrop for this was a piece of waste ground off Broad Street, a fitting blank canvas to get our imaginations in gear. Next up was the Mitte – the heart of Berlin, or in our case just outside the Slug next to the canal. Hilary told us how the Mitte was considered ‘poor but sexy’ and is now a victim of its reputation as the cool and hip area of the city: high rents, coffee shops and bars are the defining characteristics now (an appropriate echo of Brindley Place). The Brandenburg Gate was envisaged in place of the Regus building next to the Sealife Centre, and our guide’s moving tales of memorials to those killed in concentration camps was an interesting contrast to the suited city boys and girls hanging out and smoking outside Bank. It was at this point that the guitarist caught up with us and played Blur’s Out of Time. This brought us straight back into our modern physical surroundings and out of our journey into the past.

Our next stops were the River Spree and the Unter den Linden boulevard. At both stops we were told fragments of Hilary’s relationship with Alex, her German boyfriend, and the sinister aspects of their time together hinted at an emotionally abusive and turbulent time. The Bebelplatz was next up, projecting the site of the former royal library where Marx, Engels and Einstein had all studied on to the site of the impressive new Library of Birmingham. The Bebelplatz was also the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning ceremony of 1933. By this point Hilary’s recollections of her time with Alex were getting more intense and distressing and at the next stop at Birmingham’s Hall of Memory in Centenary Square she told of arguments through tears.

We moved on via Hitler’s bunker to the Berlin Wall, along with the climax of Hilary’s own story (all interspersed with distracting musical interludes). Stories of failed escape attempts over, under and through the wall were combined with the account of how Alex left Hilary. What was striking about Hilary and Alex’s story was the depth of her love for him, no matter how much they fought and what he did to her. The influence of the Berlin Wall was also clear; ‘it’s just a wall’ Hilary said at one point, but it is undeniably much more than a physical symbol.

Our final stop was the rooftop of the Brindley Place car park where we could look out over the city. The last account was of Stasi informants; since the wall came down and records have been released, families, friends and co-workers have tried to both forget and remember their betrayal. Hilary also explained how hard a ventricular assist device (known as a ‘Berlin Heart’) is to remove from patients, a true allegory of her time with Alex. The final scene of the performance was the guitarist accompanied by members of the Birmingham Choral Union singing Tender by Blur. His appearance brought us back to Birmingham from Berlin (and sadly in this case, to a deserted car park).

The tour was largely enjoyable and Hilary O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant guide and performer. Her skills in taking us not only to those landmarks of Berlin but also into the depths of her own relationship proved the event a true ‘love tour’. However, the regular appearances of the guitarist, Greg Milner, were at times grating and distracting. The choice of songs, mainly modern brit-pop tracks, were not in-keeping with the historic narrative and were sung in a way that they became a dirge. Considering Hilary’s story, it would be unfitting for the songs to be upbeat, but her skill in storytelling had already evoked the emotions Milner was trying to get across. The music therefore added nothing but did take something away, always bringing us back to our real surroundings. Still, it was a unique and innovative piece, truly in keeping with Fierce Festival as a whole, and I would recommend the experience to all.

Words by Andy Newnham

Tell Me on a Sunday (Part II)

With the wonderful weather this weekend, it seemed a shame to stay indoors and contemplate the prospect of an Easter holiday filled with exam stress. Thinking that one day off couldn’t possibly hurt, I headed into the city to a sun-glazed Brindley Place for  this month’s edition of Birmingham Book Festival’s Tell me on a Sunday. Storytellers and listeners alike were welcomed into the bright, airy cafe of the IKON Gallery to cluster round small tables complete with tea-lights and orange flowers, all enjoying a late lunch or afternoon tipple. This month’s story theme was ‘Hope and Glory’.

Cat Weatherill’s spirited introduction captured the room as the lighting dimmed to create an intriguingly intimate atmosphere. Beginning with her own story, Cat told of the money troubles she faced during the early years of her marriage and how she was inspired to apply for the TV game show Wheel of Fortune. In a captivating telling, Cat relived the suspense, excitement and enthralling hope that the chance of winning the show’s cash prize gave her. Even through to the final moments she kept the audience in the dark, not revealing til the last moment that she was to succeed in winning. Cat held the room in complete focus throughout her story, displaying the power of hope and how that hope transpired to the glory of her much needed victory.

Next to the stage was Gavin Young to tell of the racial inequality he witnessed as a child in his native South Africa. Without pretence, he described the harrowing nature of segregation, outlining in small memories how the prejudices faced by black people entered his consciousness. Movingly, he remembered the confusion he felt by the divisions society insisted on creating between him and his childhood friend. Finally, he gave an impression of the changes that have taken place since his youth, outlining a vision of hope brought about by changing opinions and a gradual regression of racial prejudice.

In a distinct contrast of subject matter, a lady stepped up to the stage to share the hope she experienced through realising her identity as a mother. In a moving, yet somewhat graphic description of events surrounding her daughter’s birth. Though sometimes being in danger of isolating some younger members of the audience, she managed to lighten her story with comedy and bold similies to keep the room on her side. Another lady told of her escape to Europe with friends during a rough patch in her marriage, reliving the freedom that she felt in her youth with humorous tales of drinking, flirting and running off without the group. This was introduced as an attempt to ‘experiment with reality’, a claim that was soon brought to life through the description of a talking fox with an aristocratic English accent deep in the French countryside. However, this telling was certainly set to continue for far more than the prescribed seven minutes, so with regret, the story was left ‘to be continued’ in next month’s session.

Following this was Natalie Cook, who seemed to bring light to the room in her bright red dress and a jauntily placed flower in her hair, telling of the hope brought to her by a particular moment from her past. She described being on a long car journey with her partner. When a certain song on the radio reminded him of an emotionally significant childhood memory, Natalie recounted the connection she felt with him, encountering the rare case of knowing that another person understands the world the way you do. Her story invoked the importance of memory and the clarity that certain moments can hold; even if they are from a distant past or an unfamiliar life, they can still be held as a precious source of hope.

Finally came a story from local writer and musician Richard Stokes, who with fantastic energy and charm told of his time working in a record shop in London. Through a combination of disenchantment with his job and mild frustration with his boss, he found himself one day ordering nine hundred and ninety-nine copies of blues singer Albert E. King’s Greatest Hits out of spite. This was, understandably, to the great rage of his boss, but equal amounts of amusement to Stokes’s  Sunday audience; a truly engaging, fantastic telling.

As acknowledged by some of the storytellers, Tell Me on a Sunday is certainly gathering a regular following, with a growing audience returning to the event each month. The chance to experience performance storytelling of this standard, and in such a perfectly welcoming venue, is indisputably rare. These  are stories that will make you think, make you feel and challenge your perspectives, all whilst making you laugh. This event is a real Birmingham gem.

The next Tell Me on a Sunday is on Sunday 22nd April, 4pm – 6.30pm at the IKON Gallery and the theme is ‘Feathers and Bones’.

Words and photography by Anna Lumsden