Work has been going on behind the scenes for months.

Theatre-goers may not have noticed, but a quiet revolution has been taking place at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre – and now the results are visible on stage.

Once the Alex might have been seen as the poor relation among the city’s theatres, missing the glitzy shows of the Hippodrome or the prestige of the Rep.

It had a few good shows a year, interspersed with average productions, weeks of hardly anything on and one-nighters from the likes of veteran blue comedian Roy Chubby Brown.

But the new season of the New Alexandra Theatre is packed with high-quality drama, West End musicals and one-nighters from the likes of Michael Palin, Clare Balding and Art Garfunkel (though Chubby Brown fans will be pleased to see he’s back too).

It’s the theatre that Dawn French and Caitlin Moran played, and which Derren Brown has picked to appear for two weeks in April, while other venues get only a week.

Plays include Cherie Lunghi, Sian Phillips, Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis in the critically-acclaimed The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, playing in October.

The Importance of Being Earnest, left to right Sian Phillips, Christine Kavanagh, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and Cherie Lunghi.
The Importance of Being Earnest, left to right Sian Phillips, Christine Kavanagh, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and Cherie Lunghi.
 

The classic play To Kill A Mockingbird arrives in November, while Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, voted the nation’s favourite play in a recent survey, arrives in February.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is staged in March.

The Alex isn’t short of West End musicals, either.

Jersey Boys, the entertaining story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, is the big Christmas show, while Return to the Forbidden Planet is back on its 25th anniversary tour in January.

Monty Python’s Spamalot with Joe Pasquale and Todd Carty returns in February, quickly followed by Jodie Prenger as Calamity Jane.

In September the Alex is one of only three theatres to premiere a brand new British musical, Blockbuster, featuring a string of 1970s hits.

And Dreamboats and Miniskirts, the sequel to Dreamboats and Petticoats, floats in during October.

Comedians playing the Alex include Ross Noble, Al Murray and Ken Dodd.

Andrew Lister, general manager of the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham
Andrew Lister, general manager of the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham
 

“We are now living up to the theatre’s slogan of World Class Theatre, but these things don’t happen overnight,” explains the Alex’s general manager Andrew Lister.

“A lot of leg work has been put in and it’s really starting to come to fruition.”

The theatre’s spring/summer season was one of the most successful in their history, with West Side Story breaking box office records.

In the first six months of this year compared with last, performances rose by 46 per cent, there were 26 per cent more tickets sold and an 80 per cent increase in revenue.

Annual audiences have been steadily growing to around 250,000.

Andrew first joined the Alex in 2005 and stayed for four years, then ran the theatre in Milton Keynes before returning two years ago.

He says: “We became part of the Ambassador Theatre Group, ATG, about four years ago when it was renamed the New Alexandra.

“We benefit from being part of the world’s leading theatre company. Previously we were owned by Live Nation which is focused on music.

Todd Carty as Patsy in Spamalot
Todd Carty as Patsy in Spamalot
 

“They have 39 theatres around the country so a promoter can go to them and organise half their tour in one go.

“But we have input too and want to make sure the season is balanced, so we don’t have a glut of musicals for example.

“We aim to put on a lot more quality drama. We don’t just suddenly find an audience for that work, so we’ve been building up to it.

“Good shows attract good shows. We are selling ourselves to promoters and acts, and we are finding more people want to come here.

“We are ensuring we can deliver audiences for strong drama.

“We have always tried to do something for everyone and that’s still the case. We are bringing in wider audiences now.

“Derren Brown is coming for a fortnight because he loves this theatre ­and the audiences – he doesn’t do that in any other places.

Master of psychological illusion, Derren Brown
Master of psychological illusion, Derren Brown
 

“It’s a good room for comedians to play.

“With 1,369 seats and a traditional layout on three levels, artists always comment on how intimate it feels. It never feels like you are too far away.”

It was opened in 1901 as the Lyceum Theatre on John Bright Street and was renamed the Alexandra in 1902.

The theatre was rebuilt with an Art Deco auditorium in 1935, and in 1967 they added the bridge and the foyer on Suffolk Street to create more space and a better frontage.

“The good thing is that people come back, and they come back to see other shows they might not have thought of trying.

“There’s plenty of variety – we go from Rocky Horror Show to opera. We hope the Alex complements other theatres in the city, I think Birmingham is able to support a good number of entertainment venues.

“As for the new season, I think the highlight for me is Jersey Boys. To have it as our big Christmas show is fantastic. It’s on its first tour out of the West End and we get it for four weeks.”

Ross Noble
Ross Noble
 

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE AS NEW SEASON BEGINS

From Shrek to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and from Lenny Henry to Dirty Dancing, there is something for all Midlanders in the region’s new theatre season.

The perennially-popular musicals Cats and Blood Brothers return to Birmingham Hippodrome in September and October.

In November, the Hippodrome presents Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle of four operas, conducted by Valery Gergiev with his world-famous Marlinsky Opera.

Carmen, Moses in Egypt and William Tell are performed by Welsh National Opera.

This year’s pantomime is Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Coronation Street’s Chris Gascoyne, Duncan James and Jane McDonald.

Comedian Jon Richardson plays the Hippodrome in October with his show Nidiot .

In April the theatre will be taken over by a giant green ogre as Shrek The Musical arrives.

Shrek The Musical.
Shrek The Musical.

Birmingham Royal Ballet presents Beauty and the Beast and Shadows of War , as well as its annual pre-Christmas treat The Nutcracker .

At the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre, DanceXchange’s autumn season includes Mark Bruce Company’s award-winning Dracula , plus Beauty of the Beast and The Little Match Girl .

At Birmingham Rep there’s an entertaining mixture of serious drama and more light-hearted work, such as Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience in which you eat dinner with Basil, Sybil and Manuel.

Rudy’s Rare Records , based on the Radio 4 series, sees Lenny Henry running a reggae record shop in Birmingham.

There’s a Samuel Beckett trilogy in September and a production of The Kite Runner .

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner , starring Michael Praed and Colin Buchanan, are staged in November.

Dame Janet Suzman stars in the South African drama Solomon and Marion , while November also brings Othello and A Farewell to Arms .

The major Christmas show at the Rep is Roald Dahl’s The BFG .

Lenny Henry, Larrington Walker and Joivan Wade in Rudy's Rare Records.
Lenny Henry, Larrington Walker and Joivan Wade in Rudy's Rare Records.

Highlights of the new season at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre include the musicals Dirty Dancing in September and Top Hat in October, plus the Midland premiere of the acclaimed National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in February.

Thriller Live arrives in November followed by The Full Monty .

The Grand pantomime is Cinderella starring Julian Clary and Joe Tracini.

In January, Brian Conley plays showman Barnum in Cameron Mackintosh’s musical, which moves on to the Hippodrome in July.

Over in Coventry, the Belgrade Theatre presents the Two-Tone musical Three Minute Heroes in October, inspired by the music of The Selecter and The Specials.

The Belgrade’s popular panto is Aladdin by veteran Iain Lauchlan.

The new season at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon includes Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won , in which Shakespeare’s romance plays out both before and after the First World War.

The Christmas Truce is a new play for families, inspired by events of 100 years ago when the British and German troops stopped fighting on Christmas Day.