Chris Neville-Smith’s 2011 awards

Before I start reviewing any new plays I’ve seen, here’s a look back on last year. I saw in total 83 plays over various big theatres, little theatres and fringe venues across the country, ranging, as always, from big-budget professional to the tiny amateur productions, with productions inevitably ranging from the outstanding to the unimaginably awful. But only a few can stick in my memory, so here is my pick of the best that 2011 offered me:

Best new writing:

Live Theatre puts in a decent showing in this category with A Walk on Part, and would have been the runaway winner were it not for the fact it’s adapted from the political diaries of Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, and therefore not strictly new writing. Good showing also from Alan Ayckbourn with Neighbourhood Watch, a good play popular with the critics. Only reason he’s pipped at the post is that this play is, to some extent, a re-hash of Small Family Business, except that instead of an innocent man being sucked into a world of East End gangsters, in this play it’s a world of Daily Mail-reading vigilantes (and, to be honest, I think I’d rather take my chances with the gangsters).

Scene from the Art of ConcealmentSo the winner, with his completely new play, is Giles Cole’s The Art of Concealment, a story of Terrence Rattigan. I saw it at last year’s Brighton Fringe, and I’m pleased to see this play transferred successfully to outer London last month. Really hope this one tours northwards because more people should see this.

Best adaptation:

No contest here. A Walk on Part, adapted by Michael Chaplain, Live Theatre, May and October/November 2011. It’s fair to say that much of the credit for this goes to Chris Mullin for painstakingly keeping records of what goes on in Government for 16 years of New Labour with a refreshing objectivity and honesty. But the slick way this was adapted to the stage with a cast of five (one Chris Mullin look-a-like and four actors playing everyone else) is worthy of praise in its own right. Live Theatre has a long hit-and-miss record, but as long as the hits Live produce are like this it’s definitely worth it.

Best low-budget/amateur/fringe production:

The wonderful thing about low budget low-manpower productions is that you can get anything, free from the commercial constraints and artistic expectations that govern larger theatres. Last year, as always, I had my fair share of both good stuff and hours of my life I bitterly regret wasting. As I saw The Art of Concealment at the Brighton Fringe, this is a good contender, but the winner, for the originality that the Fringe is all about, is Last Train to Wigan, at the Edinburgh Fringe by Keep the Faith productions, a play all about Northern Soul in the 1970s at Wigan’s infamous Casino Club.

Unfortunately, whilst A Walk on Part and The Art of Concealment look set to go on to greater things, I’ve not heard a peep about this play or group since the Fringe ended. I’ve seen many great Fringe shows sink without trace, and I really hope this isn’t one of them.

Best individual performance:

There are many individual actors I could single out for great performances. I was particularly stuck by Alex Moran in Poliz Loizou’s Hyde, where he plays both Jekyll and Hyde, transforming from one role to the other through just a change of mannerisms. Simple but stunningly effective.

But the one role that blew everything else out of the water was James Norton as Captain Stanhope in RC Shariff’s classic Journey’s End. All the partin this play are demanding, but Stanhope in particular – a young man facing a breakdown in the trenches whilst in charge of a platoon in hopeless circumstances – requires someone exceptional. And having seen this play, it is clear that James Norton is the truly exceptional actor they needed.

Most promising debut:

This is an award for a play that doesn’t necessarily have to be a great finished product, but shows good ideas and originality from a beginner that has the potential to be something great. And in 2011 my clear winner is The Caroll Myth, written by Nathan Shreeve and Performed by Smucks Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe. In fact, this year forget what I said about the play not needing to be great – it was. This play centres on Lewis Caroll’s dubious obsession with Alice, with a supporting cast switching roles between the real Alice’s family and servants and the characters from Alice in Wonderland. The highlight of this play was their performance of The Walrus and the Carpenter, which, once you put it in the context of trusting little oysters being led astray by a scheming walrus up to no good, takes on a whole new meaning.

Only semi-criticism I have is that when you skip over all the messing the play does with your head, there isn’t actually that much story in it. I wonder if this play would have worked better if it kept the same format but worked more like a biopic of Lewis Caroll. But definitely keep the format of the Alice and Wonderland world mixing with the real world – that makes the play what it is.

The “Well I liked it” award

This is a special award reserved for productions whose reception was either poor or, at best, lukewarm. Anyone can write a review agreeing with other reviewers that a show was good or bad, but I would much rather read a review from someone who’s not afraid to say what they think instead. This is my contribution. My pick for 2011 is Remember This show, this one a student production written by Lizzie Bourne. This show didn’t do too badly in the reviews – I’ve seen reviews between two and four stars – but those people I spoke to who saw this didn’t seem that enthusiastic. Maybe I just picked a bad sample, but if that’s the audience reception, they deserved better.

It’s quite a simple play: a husband and wife in the attic going through slides of scenes from their marriage, in a random chronological order. As the play progresses, two things become apparent: firstly, they are looking back on a marriage that is going badly wrong, and secondly, they are discussing it in a strangely detached and objective way. The reason, clear at the end: the wife has actually left him for good, and what we see is what the husband sees: his wife, still there, talking to him. It’s fair to criticise this for being slow-moving, and okay, that could have been handled better, but I have seen far worse offenders: deadly dull plays at snail’s pace, and they often get acclaimed as smash hits. And some of the criticisms seem silly, like the wife not moving around (that’s the whole point – it’s not a person there). I hope that Lizzie Bourne will keep at this, take on board the constructive criticism and ignore the daft criticism because anything else will be a shame.

Unexpected gem of the year

When you start seeing over 60 plays a year, you eventually learn to develop your own early warning system for bad plays. Painfully unfunny comedies and uncomfortably pretentious dramas tend to give the game away in their own publicity, and are best avoided. Higher up the scale, however, are plays that I suspect won’t work out, or plays which look perfectly watchable but otherwise formulaic. The only way to know for certain is to see it.

And just occasionally, a play defies expectations. I considered Kemble’s Riot for this award (more on this later), but the winner by a convincing margin is Chris Monks’s adaptation of Carmen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Prior to being artistic director, Chris Monks was best known for adaptations of musicals, mainly Gilbert and Sullivan, and this followed from the mafia version of The Pirates of Penzance, and the cricket version of the Mikado, both superbly directed – but ultimately light, undemanding entertainment. Carmen, however, transplants the story from a cigarette factory in Spain to a low-brow supermarket in England, where suitors become a security guard and a vain corrupt footballer. Spanish lyrics get replaced with banal gossip – and however daft this may seem, it works. It is adaptations of these that make opera accessible to the masses, so please keep up the good work.

Disappointment of the year:

Sadly, not all plays defy expectations in a good way, and the play that achieved the opposite for me last year was the new stage play of Yes Prime Minister. And it looked so promising. The TV series is of course an undisputed comedy classic, and the idea of bringing this up to date was great. (Speaking as a recently-departed civil servant, I can vouch it’s still just like the TV series.) Add in a special advisor, Claire Sutton, and the prospect of a war between her and Sir Humphrey was very tempting.

But instead, when the play wasn’t re-hashing old jokes from the TV series, it was trying to be clever. Much of the play was spent moralising over whether it’s right to prostitute an under-age girl to secure an oil deal. But the thing that really let the play down was its soapbox for climate change denialism. I don’t expect plays to be mouthpieces for my opinions, but for a TV series that once exposes government and media alike for their shoddy presentation of science to have progress to the mouthpiece of the Telegraph et al’s equally shoddy grasp of science is a very bitter disappointment.

Discretionary award:

Before moving on to the biggie, one final category for anything else last year I think deserves a mention. And last year had a very good showing for use of audience participation. I am tempted to give this award to Three’s Company’s The Importance of Being Frank, which is like The Importance of Being Earnest (word-for-word alike, in fact), until a time traveller from the 22nd century arrive to prevent Earnest and Gwendolynn marrying (as their great-great-great grandson Frank will, in 2011, detonate a nuclear device in a handbag to start world war three). Thing start getting complicates when Algernon crosses the front of stage / time portal and discovers the audience, and things get more complicated from there.

But winning by a whisker is Kemble’s Riot. This is a play about the 1809 Old Price riots in Covent Garden Theatre when the audience rioted over a rise in ticket prices. One problem: how to you cast a rioting audience? Simple: get the audience to be the rioters. Choose between the Prince’s side, where you heckle the actors, or the King’s side, where you tell the Prince’s side to shut up. It is one of the most innovative pieces of theatre I’ve seen, and unlike many Fringe productions that vanish after a successful run, I’m please to say this is coming to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. If you’re going to the Edinburgh Fringe, come and see this. If you’re not, this is a good reason to change your mind.

And the best play I saw in 2011 is …

Journey’s End. By a long way. Some good competition, but this production was unbeatable. I’ve singled out James Norton for his performance as Captain Stanhope, but frankly, everything else about the production was equally terrific. There wasn’t a single weak link in the cast, the set of a was fully convincing, and, of course, the play itself is outstanding.

The icing on the cake is the way this play applies modern technology to an old play. I don’t know how they did the lighting, but the murky lighting on the underground bunker officers’ bunker was spot on. But as for the sound effect – my God – I could swear the deafening noise of enemy artillery firing on the trenches is the same as the real thing. The one extra scene – the soldiers standing in front of a huge war memorial whilst The Last Post play was very moving. With so many high-profile productions pandering to bums on seats, it is good to have productions like this showing how it can be done. Congratulations to all involved. You have a lot to be proud of.