Black Sabbath – The Ballet – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Original Music: Black Sabbath

Choreographers: Pontus Lidberg, Raúl Reinoso, Cassi Abranches

Royal Ballet Sinfonia Conductor: Christopher Austin

Proto Goth, pre-Punk pioneers of Laney amp stack ear-bleeding volume, kitsch Brummie kitchen-sink anarchist caught-up in the blocked U-bend of lives going nowhere fast on the hard-shoulder of broken-down dreams meet, fifty years later, fellow Brummie ballet iconoclasts. What’s not to like?

Old Sab sweats share a pre-performance drink with a conspiratorial smile tonight, maybe more follicly challenged than those late 60s days of hirsute mayhem and Army & Navy default trench overcoats. The War Pigs tattoos, the Ankh crucifixes dangling over a life-time’s brown ‘n’ mild beer guts a bit of a giveaway – or maybe just the default Ozzie kohl eyeliner and that souk-like reminiscence of patchouli-oil and joss-stick Saturdays shopping in Oasis.

Those were the days when the band went by the name Earth and were known as Progressive Blues by many. No girlfriends allowed, as if anyway. And yes, Tony Iommi used to play flute as well. And now there’s a photo-shoot featuring the top-fingered-riffer smiling along with Carlos Acosta on the Black Sabbath bench on Broad Street – who’d’ve thought. Fasten down your tutus tight – Heavy Metal Thunder’s about to take flight.

The Hippo’s near rammed to a sell-out audience. Word is the recent footfall has seen 60% new to ballet. So, get the big-guns punter pullers on board with a three-act programme to both please and perplex in equal measure. Pump up the volume lead composer and music supervisor, Christopher Austin, and get cranking up the Tribute Band otherwise known as Royal Ballet Sinfonia like no other from Hell and beyond. The overarching conceit of this gig is one where dramaturg, Richard Thomas, wields three acts of disparate choreographic conceits into a conceptual narrative from expositionally explicit to abstract free-form flow.

It’s certainly a curate’s egg this one, but well worth breaking open to celebrate a band once derided by the London music rags as Swarfega-soaked slime-bag Brummie upstarts. Act 1 – The Heavy Metal Ballet, is a finessed, regimental riff on the War Pigs lyrics that were, with anecdotal folk-lore credibility, taken on board by US Army Marines caught up in the carnal chaos of the Vietnam War. Martial drums beat out the regimental structure as both the orchestra and recorded War Pigs signature riffs play off on each other, Tony Iommi acting as music consultant. Lighting designer, K.J, does structural manipulations of laser-beam frisson any stadium band would die for.

The orchestra have their score (no pharmaceutical repurposing inference intended), it says so in the pit, on top of the staves – Black Sabbath – The Ballet. There’s a low-slung Gibson guitar shooter-from-the-hip (Marc Hayward) who struts and sways between the dancers as the insistent death-knoll riff of War Pigs drives the apocalypse row ever closer. Heavy Metal vinyl iconography descends from the heavens. Designer, Alexandre Arrechea, opting for the absolute very less is the ultimate more. An anonymous, articulated figure enveloped in grey, stretched fabric, assumes the disconnect character of Iron Man, the dronal insistency exaggerated to near excess. The Brummies get it, passing Andrew Gormley’s rusting sculpture guarding the passage to and from the Town Hall.

There are pas de deux to stay alive for forever; the honking brass section having the time of their lives growling-out sub-bass accentuated mayhem to every teenage boy’s angry anthem – PARANOID!

The remaining acts explore the more esoteric themes of the band’s explosive rise to fame and adulation – and Columbian marching powder downfall. Snippets of voice-overs from expletive deleted Ozzy (shame on you producers, it went out on main channel TV with The Osbournes, dog-do et al) together with Tony Iommi’s evergreen modesty on how he accidentally invented the industrial-grade guitar sound of a millennium. For some inexplicable reason known only to the Sabbath cognoscenti, a silver-winged demon stands astride an over-turned, likewise hued, car wreck. A nuanced metaphor for What Is This That Stands Before Me?Ozzy’s oracle for an impending life of substance carnage? With an ensemble blitzkrieg of dancing panegyric pandemonium, iconic Black Sabbath riffs are reprised with celebratory abandon, the evening’s climax seeing Marc Hayward return to crank it up to 11 and beyond. And, beyond all great expectations – he’s joined by … another guitarist. Nuff said. A one-off special guest appearance apparently. Just to say it’s a gratuitous bevvy of every Sab’s sixth snake-bite pint dream and beyond. Nice one Tony. Bonkers, eclectic and damn Brummie brilliant – miss this and hate yourself forever.

No bats harmed in were harmed in the course of tonight’s performance.

Runs until 30 September 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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