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Amateur stage: Enterprising Highbury Accused of attracting a TV coup; There are surprises all round at a Sutton Coldfield theatre, reports John Slim.

Byline: John Slim

There will be a surprise for 12 members of the Highbury Little Theatre audience every night of the next production at the Sutton Coldfield venue.

They will find a note on their seats, asking them to serve on-stage as jurors in The Accused, the Jeffrey Archer court drama about a doctor accused of murdering his wife.

They will view the proceedings from the stage, in a play written with two different endings, depending on the verdict.

But the Highbury Players themselves have had a sizable surprise, too. They are being handsomely rewarded for their enterprise, which I mentioned a couple of months ago, in chasing Jeffrey Archer to obtain permission to stage what it believes to be the world amateur premiere of The Accused.

Permission was readily granted - and that started another ball rolling: BBC3 film cameras will be at Highbury on Thursday next week to film the cast in rehearsal, for use in a documentary about Archer that will be shown both on BBC3 and BBC2.

Highbury Theatre chairman Steve Bowyer says, 'It's very exciting - very, very exciting.' The first he knew of it was when the documentary's Manchester-based director Alex Hill telephoned him and asked whether the group would like part of its preparations for the production to be filmed.

'I rang Brian Hill, who is directing our production, asked whether he was interested and gave him Alex Hill's number and it went on from there. It certainly puts the theatre on the map.'

Set-building started on Monday, with everyone aware that the television crew hope to find a recognisable courtroom when they arrive.

Brian Hill, who has also designed the production, told me: 'It's not easy to get the Old Bailey onto the Highbury Stage.'

The production, which will open on March 18, has come about because the theatre approached the management that put The Accused on in the West End, with Archer himself playing the part of the accused doctor.

Archer's PA visited him in prison to ask whether he would agree to it. His locked-away lordship readily acquiesced.

This is not the first time that BBC cameras have visited the theatre. It also happened ten years ago, when the late Joan Hickson was to be seen on its tiny stage, being filmed for part of a Miss Marple episode.

Steve Bowyer recalls: 'They were filming for a week and the bit involving Highbury was about a minute.'

Let's hope that this time they crack the 90second barrier.

I was not far wrong last week in doubting the ability of Hampstead's Hooray Henries to cope with Wallop Mrs Cox, the wonderful Brummie musical that ended its second spell at Birmingham Rep on Saturday and which, I'm told, could probably have been sold three times over.

Sure enough, it was greeted with thinlyveiled contempt by at least one London-based Sunday heavy. But this, combined with the emotional standing ovation that went on and on after Saturday's performance, has merely made co-writers Euan Rose and Laurie Hornsby and their battle-hardened Cox consortium more determined than ever to see things through to what they hope will not be too bitter an end.

Director John Adams is leading the way in negotiations to take the show into one of the other major Birmingham theatres before the end of the year, and there are hopes that it will yet hit London - despite the doubters.

Euan Rose says: 'It was written for the people of Birmingham and it's a Birmingham show, but if other people think it has a wider appeal we would love to take it further.'

More power to Birmingham's collective elbow!

Things don't get any better at Hall Green Little Theatre. When Love Letters opened on Monday last week, its two cast members were watched by an audience of four and at that point there had been no bookings at all for the following night or for Thursday, and no more than half a dozen bookings for any of the other three studio performances. The play consists simply of two people reading letters they exchange over half a century.

They just sit there - so it is certainly short on action.

But it was an absorbing evening in the hands of Margaret Whitehouse and Roy Palmer and they deserved a better response than they received from all those who missed it.

Coleshill Drama Group tonight launches Jean Anouilh's Antigone, a 20th-century classic which has been taken on as a challenge by this enterprising group under the direction of new member Tom Browne.

The production at Coleshill Town Hall runs until Saturday.

WHAT'S ON Half a Sixpence, Kidderminster Operatic Society, Rose Theatre, Kidderminster (to Saturday).

To Kill a Mockingbird, Crescent Theatre, Birmingham (to Saturday). Hello, Dolly!, Coleshill Operatic Society, Solihull Library Theatre (to Saturday).

Brigadoon, Astwood Bank Operatic Society, Palace Theatre, Redditch (to Saturday).

Calamity Jane, Walsall Operatic Society, Sutton Coldfield Town Hall (Mar 11-15).

Female Transport, BSSD Theatre Company, Birmingham Library Theatre (Mar 12=15).

Of Mice and Men, Sutton Arts Theatre (Mar 13-22). The Exorcism, Grange Players, Grange Playhouse, Walsall (Mar 13-22).
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 5, 2003
Words:846
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