Chris Neville-Smith’s 2012 awards

So, another year gone, and I’ve seen a grand total of 82 plays. So now it’s time to look back over the year and pick the ones that stood out for me. As usual, the completely arbitrary criterion for entry is that it has to be a play I happened to see. So, without further ado, let’s get going.

Best new writing:

Caroline Horton in MessQuite a few good pieces of new writing this year, but there were two things in particular which stuck in my mind. I was seriously tempted by Sparkle and Dark’s The Girl With No Heart. This was largely a team effort, and consequently the credit for the creativity lies with the whole team and not just one person, but this wouldn’t have been half the play it was without Louisa Ashton’s outstanding script. Other strong contenders include Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison and Stuart Lee’s Dev’s Army.

But the award goes to Caroline Horton for Mess, a very moving play about anorexia. It manages to tackle a very sensitive subject in a way that makes people understand why people do this, and yet keeps it humorous. Most striking, however, was the way the author clearly drew on her own experiences of anorexia, and – incredibly – performed the leading role herself. That was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, the praise for this play is thoroughly deserved, and this is someone who could be going to to better things very quickly.

Best adaptation:

Didn’t see many plays this year I could call adaptations. Out of the few I did see, the clear winner is Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of A Government Inspector performed by Northern Broadsides. Nikolay Gogol’s classic comedy of petty bureaucracy and corruption in the 19th century in Russia proves remarkably suitable for transplanting to the 21st-century in – well, pretty much anywhere. It’s fair to say it’s unclear whether this Yorkshire-themed adaptation would work so well without the cast it was written for, but what a production it was. All of the best bits of the story – the tinpot tyrant of a council chairman, the sponger of a civil servant mistaken for the inspector, and the toadying in hierarchy in the town – were captured perfectly. The partnership of Deborah McAndrew and director Conrad Nelson is clearly one of Northern Broadsides’ greatest assets.

Best low-budget/amateur/fringe production:

This is an award for something that was excellent without the help of any major backers. One important clarification is that I tend not to include Edinburgh Fringe productions at the Traverse Theatre as they’re not really low-budget productions.

So with Mess out of the running, there’s no contest. The winner by a mile is Sparkle and Dark’s The Girl With No Heart. This one of the most outstanding team efforts I’ve seen, with writing, directing, puppetry, music, scenery and lighting all coming together for a great performance. Even more impressively, Sparkle and Dark already had a previous hit, The Clock Master, which doubtless would have been a success at Edinburgh, but they instead chose to take a risk with a new play with more potential, and the gamble paid off. I gather they are already working on new projects, but I hope this one is not put to bed just yet, because the play deserve a much wider exposure than Edinburgh.

Best individual performance:

This was a very tough choice. Narrowly beaten into second place is Haydn Gwynne as Stephanie Anderson in Duet For One. A very challenging role closely mirroring Jacqueline du Pré and her fight with multiple sclerosis, the end of her career as a musician, and the inevitable depression and suicidal thoughts, only an outstanding performance could have done this justice, and that’s what we got.

Anthony Cable as Geordie Sinatra

But pipping her at the post is Anthony Cable as Geordie in Geordie Sinatra. This is also someone with a delibitating disease – this time dementia with lewry bodies – who frequently hallucinates. Once a Sinatra impersonator, Geordie now intermittently believes he is the Frank Sinatra. The role demands a switch from a helpless man on his off-days, a better man on his on-days humiliated by what he’s reduced to, and Frank himself in the dream scenes inside his head. Very difficult to pick between the two, but this wins the tie-breaker for being the play’s first performance. No old movie to watch, no previous performances to see how it’s done, just creating a complex character never seen on stage before. Oh yes, and the role also includes a rendition of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ greatest hits.

Most promising début:

This is for a play that didn’t necessarily work out perfectly but still showed exceptional innovation from a new company I’ve never heard of. And this year I’m giving it to Just Add Water’s Bobby, a story about a misunderstood teenager in prison who lost all hope and self-esteem. It’s fair to call this a work in progress – the philosophising at the beginning about conciousness goes on too long and doesn’t really add to the story, the ending is abrupt, and some of the devised theatre elements in the play zip through important bits of the story a bit too quickly to properly take in.

But there was one over-arching theme of the play that was outstanding, and that was the voice in the central character’s head. In Bobby’s mind, there is a bitter power-struggle with Self-Loathing, Fear and Despair taking over. Free Will is fighting a losing power struggle, trying desperately to get Hope to come back and Desire to show some teeth. All of these emotions are played by the four actors arguing amongst themselves, and if this sound pretentious, it’s not – it actually works very well. I hope this is not the last we have heard from Just Add Water, because this sort of originality is very hard to come by.

The “Well I liked it” award

This is my recognition of a play that I think deserves a lot more recognition than it got. And this year, it goes to Vincent Casser’s What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? I have one fault and one fault only with the play, and that was their choice of publicity. The posters tell you very little about what the play is about, the title bears very little relation to the subject matter, and consequently, I found myself quite awkwardly in an audience of four. Worse, this was a free event.

But the tiny audience was a very harsh penalty for the botched publicity, because this is a damned good play. This is a monologue of a man who is rather odd who has some rather weird views about women and does himself few favours with social skills. But when a young woman gets murdered in the woods where he walks, the Police put two and two together and make seventeen. It’s a simple story questioning his swift society is to assume the worst about anyone who doesn’t fit in. And much credit to the solo performance by Ben Tinniswood; a good performance in its own right, and an excellent one when you consider how difficult it is to keep going with a disappointing turnout. Such a pity that more people didn’t see this, but a production that deserves the credit that’s due.

Unexpected gem of the year:

This year’s winner is maybe at a bit of an unfair advantage, because my expectations were artificially low at the time. I saw this at the end of my Edinburgh Fringe stint after three days of mostly disappointing plays. The only reason I picked this one was that it happened to be near the station shortly before my train home, from the half-price ticket hut. This was in spite of my grave misgivings about half-price shows, especially “devised” theatre which is very easy to do badly.

The Ruby DollsTo my surprise Rubies in the Attic turned out to be really good. This was performed by the Ruby Dolls, four women who normally perform as old-style Cabaret singers. However, on this occasion they did a devised piece based on historical stories of various ancestors, from all over the world. It was all done to a variety of songs from all over the world, and it is one of the few pieces of devised theatre where it actually all fits together. I was worried that the Ruby Dolls might disappear after one Fringe (this fate befalls a lot of successful productions), but I heard them on Woman’s Hour on Christmas Day so they’re still going strong. And what’s more, they’re sticking with the acting, even though they surely already have lucrative opportunities doing just singing. Keep an eye on these four because they may have more surprises up their sleeve.

Disappointment of the year:

This one I name with some regret: Live Theatre’s Nativities by Zoe Cooper. I don’t like singling out plays by unestablished or emerging writers, but I feel I have to say something about this one because Live has been heavily promoting Zoe Cooper as the next big thing and this play as an example of what good writers do. Sadly, if the audience feedback I picked up is anything to go by, I’m afraid I must heavily advise against trying to imitate this. It’s a play that breaks the rules and doesn’t get a away with it, and – worse – half the things they play did wrong were the things that Live tells us on the writers group you should never ever do. The only saving grace it that it wasn’t the next Live production, Utopia, which I didn’t see but was apparently a disaster.

The idea behind Nativities had potential: a mind-numbing call centre under threat of closure, a lecherous young boss parachuted in by his future in-laws, a young girl (Stella) targeted by him, her enthusiastic but incredibly annoying line manager. But unfortunately the play was let down very very badly by trying to be clever. The attempted parallel to the Nativity story made no sense apart from Stella getting pregnant, long stretches of play passed with nothing interesting happening, and scenes ending at seemingly arbitrary moments. They made use of tried and tested theatrical devices, such as Stella’s posturing giving away her nerves, dramatic monologues and people talking over each other and not listening – but when the same set piece is used the fourth, fifth or sixth time in a play it gets tedious. Now, it’s not fair to write off Zoe Cooper, because Live’s last partnership with a young new writer (Lee Mattinson) has gone rather well. But if Zoe Cooper does not learn lessons about what went wrong here, it won’t do her or Live any favours.

Discretionary award:

There’s one play that doesn’t fit any of the above awards but still deserves a mention: Pilot Theatre and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It was an adaptation by Roy Williams transplanting Alan Stillitoe’s 1950s short story to the present day in the aftermath of the London Riots, and apart from the ending not quite making sense, it was a good all-rounder. But the thing which really made the play stand out was the use of projectors. Projectors are probably the fastest-advancing area of theatre technology today, but what was really impressive was the skilful way this was integrated with the play. Whilst some plays fall into the trap of using moving projected images as a substitute for anything interesting on stage, these images added to the play extremely well. Will this become a new popular format of theatre? Maybe we’ll find out this year.

And the best play I saw in 2012 is …

This time, I gave serious consideration to two Fringe plays. The Girl With No Heart and Mess were both outstanding all-rounders and proof if you ever need it that you don’t need to go to a 800-seater theatre for a good night out.

Scene from A Government InspectorBut hopes of a nail-biting tie-breaker were dashed at the last moment by Northern Broadsides with A Government Inspector, seen is, as it happens, the 800-seater York Theatre Royal. Like Journey’s End last year, this was outstanding in pretty much every respect. A deservedly classic text, a superb partnership between adaptation writer and director, as slick and choreographed a performance as you can get, a very funny play – oh yes, and the entire cast also play as a brass band. For a company that has only been in existence ten years, it’s a remarkable achievement to build such good productions so quickly. So far, I don’t think they have revived any past productions. Now’s a good time for an exception, because this adaptation deserves another run, and I don’t think anyone but Northern Broadsides can do it justice.

So there you go. The best of 2012. Congratulations to the winners. Commiserations to all the other good productions that didn’t quite make it. Come back this time next year for the 2013 awards.