REVIEW: Van Gogh Alive UK at Birmingham Hippodrome

Seven months and two days ago, I took my seat in the auditorium of Birmingham Hippodrome, for what became one of the last press nights for the year. 

Through the milling around before the show, the laughs and the sing-a-longs and the goodbyes as we all went our separate ways at the end of the night, nobody expected the near-catastrophic changes that have altered our way of life since. This isn't a political soapbox, but the blind ignorance shown towards the British performing arts industry has seen theatres on the brink of closure and Birmingham Hippodrome, by its own admission, forced to lay off over 60 members of its family to remain viable.

It was a situation which seemed, with current restrictions, insurmountable - until this evening.

Birmingham Hippodrome is playing host to the UK premiere of Van Gogh Alive, a multi-sensory arts and entertainment experience which allows you to see the work, and explore the life, of one of the worlds most famous artists.

Produced by Grande Exhibitions, this immersive piece has inspired over 6 million people across 50 cities around the world - and its clear to see why.

Curated with a mesmerising soundtrack, simply beautiful HD projections and an environment that stimulates the senses like never before, it doesn't matter if you're a hardcore fan of the Dutch master, or if (like me!) your biggest exposure to Van Gogh is looking at a painting of Sunflowers at school - there is absolutely something here for you.

From the moment you enter the Hippodrome's familiar lobby, to the point you walk through the auditorium doors to be greeted with a sight that's so intensely hard to describe, you're sucked in by the magnitude of what's before you. Seating has been removed, giant screens erected and the dimly lit space sees the auditorium and the stage merge together. It's not until you're standing centre stage and you can see the corner of the royal box peeking out from between two canvases that you can really place yourself in the space.

Please believe me when I say that this show is awesome. There just is no other word for it.

It's big, it's loud, it's absorbing - and it's perfect. And the analogy that's listed in the programme is absolutely correct; this isn't a quiet walk around a library-like gallery space where you're tutted at for coughing. This is a chance to be part of the artwork and to experience the paintings. There's definitely a feel in the room that this is exactly what the country needs right now - but taking the pandemic out of the equation, whatever point in the year this had arrived, it would still be an amazing piece of work that the creatives behind it should be commended for constructing.

There's also something incredibly poignant about the whole experience. Maybe it's the sad story of an incredibly talented artist, who's work wasn't fully appreciated until after his death? It could be the sparsity of numbers allowed into such a creative space that's normally bustling with interaction? Or maybe, just maybe, it's the moment when you realise, before the lights dim and the show begins, that you're standing centre stage at one of the most special theatres in the country and - in a somewhat meta outlook - there's still a disconnect where this building is crying out to be itself again.

It's important to say, visitors can rest assured that Van Gogh Alive event provides a COVID safe environment that exceeds government public health guidelines. Controlled visitor capacities and managed visitor flow mean visitors can easily respect government social-distancing guidelines.

From the second I walked in, I felt safe - but not restricted. This is an environment where responsible patrons, a simple one way system and sanitising points dotted around made you feel secure but without making you feel robotic. You can absolutely enjoy this experience and immerse yourself fully, in a group of people who are masked, distanced and respectful of what they need to do.

Van Gogh Alive is, ultimately, the return of large-scale arts to the second city. Trust me when I say that, if you're a fan of theatre, art or any similar fields then this is exactly the tonic you need right now. To spend an hour or so enjoying the arts is one thing, but to do it in a controlled community environment with other like-minded people, experiencing a mind-blowing cacophony of sound and visuals takes it to the next level.

Van Gogh Alive runs at Birmingham Hippodrome until July 2021. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased from birminghamhippodrome.com.

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