A bostin’ celebration of Birmingham

That was a bit of a laugh wasn’t it?

If you didn’t read that in the voice of Noddy Holder as Dudley Sidebottom, then I expect you’ve never been to Cadbury World, but not for long, if you watched the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Birmingham. If that doesn’t compel you to travel to the West Midlands, nothing will.

If the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was a century-spanning theatrical extravaganza that distilled every emblem of Britain and Britishness and turned it into a human diorama then almost 10 years to the day, this show at the Alexander Stadium, directed by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, was that in miniature, a joyful, weird celebration of the history, culture and canals of Britain’s second city (and its surrounding counties – they did have to get a good shout out to local boy William Shakespeare in, after all).

This ceremony gave a good go of challenging Danny Boyle’s 2012 production. It was ambitious in scale, enjoyably loopy and swung hallucinogenically in tone between surreal and sincere.

We had Duran Duran, Lenny Henry, the CBSO, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Edward Elgar (well, a big puppet of his head), Black Sabbath (well, Tony Iommi), a gigantic printing press with a ream of type in Baskerville font, a tribute to the Bullring marketplace, a speech about the importance of girls’ education from Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai, who made her home in Birmingham after leaving Pakistan when she was shot by the Taliban, and of course, the star of the show – aside from the athletes – a 10-metre tall mechanical bull, half minotaur half terrifying oversized bucking bronco that in one quite dystopian sequence got angry and threatened to unleash terror upon the spectators, volunteers, actors and dancers beneath.

Performers during the opening ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at the Alexander Stadium, Birmingham (Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire)

The night followed the story of “Stella and The Dreamers”, according to the official literature, “a group of young athletes from around the Commonwealth who explore Birmingham’s history and represent a better, brighter future for us all.”

Dancers carried luminous crystals, filled with their dreams, as they met the city’s pioneers, and witnessed some of the city’s “struggles and successes” – with parades and floats, there were dramatisations of periods in Birmingham’s history, from its links to the slave trade to its car manufacturing (Prince Charles and Camilla arrived in an Aston Martin forming a Union Flag shape with 72 other cars, representing the nations competing).

The Commonwealth, both how it came into existence and the question of its relevance, is neither simple nor uncontroversial. As if to swerve criticism, Knight chose to focus the night on the cultural diversity of modern Birmingham, Britain’s most mixed city.

There were performers and dancers representing its Irish, Afro-Caribbean and Indian populations and at every opportunity the show platformed brilliant Brummy talent – most prominently Brummy comedians (from Joe Lycett to Shazia Mirza) and musicians (jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch performed, there was a lot of Laura Mvula and Dexys Midnight Runners, and even more ELO).

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TV commentators Andrew Cotter and Hazel Irvine were unfortunately lumped with some drearily worthy scripts to read – “our common wealth is our humanity”, “we’re all touched by stardust” – which though well-intentioned and their sentiments certainly acutely felt, as we watched this quite moving display, did risk ringing a little hollow. As that London opening ceremony proved, it’s very easy to get caught up in the festivities and claim unity, only to be bitterly let down by division in the real world.

No script, though, was stranger than what they were forced to read during that raging bull segment about the Industrial Revolution.

“A frenetic beat pounds to remind us of the relentless, heartless drive of industry, 50 female chain-makers drag a giant, massively impressive heavily armoured bull into the bullring. Scarred by past hurt and enraged by the city’s inability to learn from its mistakes, the bull breaks away and escapes. This causes pandemonium and, in an act of emancipation, the women break their own chains.” Possibly show, rather than tell, would have allowed this moment to be a little more impactful.

But that bull – which will be on display in the city after the ceremony – really was a striking, graceful feat of moving sculpture; art and machinery come together and to vivid, strange life.

And in truth, it was more dynamic than Simon Le Bon at the helm of Duran Duran’s crooning closing numbers at the end of the show. Let’s hope the athletes have a bit more energy, and, that I do once I’ve had some sleep. A bostin’ show, well done to all involved, I’m off to bed. Let the games begin.

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