Chris Neville-Smith’s 2014 awards

Move over Oscar, step aside Tony, who needs some silly ceremony where someone opens an envelope when who could be getting the prestigious honour of reading about your play on a post? Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s that time of year again, when I decide on the best plays I’ve seen all year. And, damn, once again I’m going to have to get choosy, because I’ve seen a lot of good plays that I’d be happy to see in this list, but there’s only twelve categories (eleven if you exclude the booby prize).

A reminder of the rules: this is based on my opinion and my opinion only. No bonus points for five-star reviews elsewhere. The only way that other people’s endorsements might help you is if it persuaded me to see your play in the first place (because, in order for you to be eligible, I will need to have seen your play). Productions I have seen in previous years generally aren’t eligible, so that small companies and new productions stand a fair chance against successful long-running shows.

So, if you can kindly imagine some glamorous Hollywood starlet in an unnecessarily skimpy dress opening an envelope, let us begin.

Best new writing:

Scene from BlinkBlink, by Phil Porter, produced by Nabokov, toured to Live in February. My God, I loved that play. For most of the year, this was the runaway leader. Alan Ayckbourn put a pretty good late challenge with Roundelay, but one play out of the set of five was weak, allowing Blink to win by a significant margin. I must admit Phil Porter was at a bit of an unfair advantage because I caught this play five days after been dumped. The day before Valentine’s Day. By text message. (It barely qualified as something you can be dumped from, but I was nonetheless a tad emotional at the time.) But it’s now ten months on, I’m back to my usual emotionless self, and I still think it’s wonderful.

Usually, when it’s a new play by a writer I’ve never heard of, I’m nit-picking the play from the start to see whether I think it’ll be any good. This one, however, have me hooked from start to finish with a love story two deeply flawed but highly believable characters. It’s character-driven drama at its best. And quite a plus point for the Bruntwood prize too, seeing as both this year’s and last year’s pick were Bruntwood finalists.

Best adaptation:

Publicity image from BirdsongI came quite close to giving this to Northern Stage’s Catch 22. Northern Stage has a consistently high standard with its main productions, and although this was a revived classic script rather than something new, they did their usual excellent job.

But, on balance, I think I’m going to give this to Birdsong from the Original Theatre Company. Like Northern stage, they put on a play with high production values to a high standard, but the clincher is the fact they were doing something that Sebastian Faulks himself said was “bonkers” to attempt to make into a stage play. But Rachel Wagstaffe somehow pulled it off. This is still touring and will be returning to the north-east shortly, so if you didn’t catch it last time, do so next time.

Best revival/long-running play:

Scene from Cat on a Hot Tin RoofSeen a good number of decent classic plays, but there’s really only one serious contender for me, and that’s James Dacre’s take of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He remained completely faithful to the originaly play both in word and in spirit, and yet also he found ways to add his own touch to the play with stunning effect. Even though the production had to make do with a script-in-hand stand in, it still wins convincingly over runner-up Translations.

This time, he added a sense of unreality to the production with a dazzling white set and a fireworks display going on outside the house whilst a family slowly falls apart on the inside. Damn it, he’s created such a good impression with the two plays I’ve seen so far. I’m even going to have to stop making Daily Mail jokes.

Most effective staging:

Once again, it’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It pretty much had to be, considering how much of the play’s success was down to the set and the lighting. Credit for this can be shared between set designer Mike Britton and lighting designer Richard Howell.

Best individual performance:

Charles Adrian as Samantha MannAnd now, a shock result. In the last three years, it’s been lead characters in medium- to large-scale productions where the role was a demanding one. Not this time. This year, the most outstanding performance I saw was a one-person show fringe show, with the tiniest budget possible. And it wasn’t even in the theatre section of the programme. It was down as a comedy. The surprise winner is Charles Adrian as Samantha Mann in Samantha Mann: Stories about Life, Death and a Rabbit.

What seems, at face value, to be a light-hearted comedy about an inept middle-aged spinster attempting poetry is actually a very, very clever piece of solo theatre. The main joke is supposed to be that Samantha Mann barely gets round to doing any poetry, instead waffling away to the audience with one digression after another, but it is in these digressions where the story comes together. And to cleverly piece together this story under the cover of such convincing hesitation, repetition and digression is on of the best performances I’ve seen, easily up there with the best performances I’ve seen in full-scale full-budget professional shows.

Best low-budget/fringe/amateur production:

This is an award intended for groups who put on an excellent play with only a fraction of the budget and resources available to full professional groups. You find a lot of this at the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton fringes, but being in the programme of one of these festivals does not automatically make you eligible for this award. In particular, I don’t normally count Edinburgh fringe plays, or tours of plays that started at the Edinburgh Fringe, if they were shown at the Traverse; this is because fringe plays shown at the Traverse theatre tend to run on higher budgets than most fringe plays and get backed by some big players.

MMB_9565_S-1So, with Blink out of the running, it’s a open goal for Dugout Theatre who romp home with Inheritance Blues. My God, they all act, they all play instruments, they all sing in six-piece a capella, and write a pretty decent play to boot. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was the sort of thing you’d expect Northern Stage or Live Theatre to commission for an Edinburgh run, but they’re not – they’re an ex-student group. Wow. Just wow.

Most promising début:

This year, I think I’ll give this to Alice Mary Cooper for her solo performance of Waves at the Brighton Fringe. This isn’t quite her first Fringe outing – she first came to my attention back in 2012 with her quite bizarre piece When Alice (Cooper) met (Prince) Harry, but this is the first thing of hers I’ve seen that can be considered a serious attempt at a play – or, at the very least, a play where you can’t hide behind “it was just a bit of fun” if it doesn’t work out. This play, a mostly-imagined story of a woman who pioneered the butterfly stroke at the Olympics, is a nice play, but something I felt would have been stronger told in first person. But Richard Stamp of Fringeguru disagreed, said the third-person format added to it, and gave it a five-star review.

Press image of Alice Cooper in WavesWhat I have little doubts over, however, is that I really like the direction she’s going in. She has a distinctive style of solo performance and a stage presence you don’t see in many fringe newbies. And I really really liked her use of sound and lighting to create an atmosphere to this story. If she can keep this up with future plays and future performances, her time may well come. Watch this space.

The “Well I liked it” award:

This is an award for something that I felt got less acclaim from the critics than it deserved, or less audience than it deserved. This year, it’s the latter. I’ve slightly bent the rules and give this to Robert Cohen’s High Vis, even though this isn’t strictly the first year I’ve seen it. I first saw it in 2013 at the Brighton Fringe, where it went down very well. This year, he took it to the Fringe as part of the new Freestival free fringe.

Scene from High VisUnluckily for him, he was seriously messed about once he got there, having got move spaces twice, with the second move also entailing a move of time slot too. This is not a very encouraging start for Freestival at all, although Robert Cohen says he felt the blame lies with the owners of the premises used rather than the Freestival organisers. It wasn’t all bad, because he got a four-star review in a national newspaper. Unfortunately, it’s the Daily Mail, so it was probably opposite a scare story about gypsy asylum-seeking pedophile burglars on benefits on your doorstep, but any kind of review in a national paper, let alone a four-star one, is a big achievement. Such a shame he was messed about this much, because this surely would have had a much better turnout otherwise.

Unexpected gem of the year:

In a normal year, Three’s Company would have scooped this easily with this year’s Shakespeare for Breakfast (aka Shakesperience). Here I was expecting some passages from Shakespeare, and instead I got a trip to Shakespeare island where all the Shakespeare baddies gang up on the Shakespeare goodies, culminated in a rap battle.

Scene from The Duck PondBut amazingly, this has been topped by The Duck Pond. This transplants Swan Lake to a fairground, where a handsome prince falls in love with a plastic duck from the hook-a-duck stall who only changes into a human at night. Surely you can’t make a decent play out of that? … My god, they have. With music, choreography, audience participation and casual disregard for basic rules of science (physics says you can grab the moon and run off with it, can’t you?), this was an excellent play by a relatively new company on an idea I’d have never thought could work.

Disappointment of the year:

Every year I see a few plays that turn out to be dreadful, but most of them are from small groups. I lay off them because there’s all sorts of easy mistakes that can cause you to make a stinker. Instead, this award is for large-scale groups where I was expecting better, and this year … oh dear, oh dear. Until now, there’s only been one play per year that’s been a disappointment, but this year there were three. For a long time, it looked like the Orange Tree Theatre might get the award for a second year running with the baffling It Just Stopped, and then Chris Monks – why, Chris, why? – joined the fray with his sequel to Cox and Box, a highly tedious opinion play. (I won’t count Islands because that was only a preview.)

However, all this pales into insignificance against Wunderbaum’s Looking for Paul. I don’t know where to begin with this. It was as tastless and banal as Jackass, and yet as pretentious and full of itself as Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Worst of all was the reverence the play and whole venue gave to tasteless banal pretentious full-of-himself “artist” Paul McCarthy, whose so-called public art does a lot of harm to ordinary lives in the name of “provoking debate”. And most depressingly, I fully expect remarks such as mine to be taken as proof of how much us philistines don’t understand proper art and how important it is that geniuses like McCarthy do even more stuff like this.

The only thing I will say in this play’s defence is that it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to theatre this year. And the end if the day, Looking for Paul is only a play, and no-one was forced to watch it. No, the worst thing to happen was the return of political censorship through threats of violence, as happened to two groups whose crime was their Israeli nationality. But as far as worst plays go, this wins by a mile.

Discretionary award:

Scene from RoundelayBefore the big one, this is my award for the thing I think most deserves recognition that doesn’t win the above categories. In previous years, it’s gone for plays that have been different or innovative in some way. This time, however, I’m giving it to the runner-up of another category. Outstanding though Blink was, Alan Ayckbourn also deserves credit for Roundelay.

Roundelay is a set of five one-act plays, and they’re good plays apart from one weak link, but the really impressive things is how the stories are interlinked in a way that enables them to be performed in a random order. Plenty of writers to these sorts of clever tricks with writing, but usually this comes at the expense of enjoyability for the audience. For Ayckbourn to have done this and produce a set of plays which are this enjoyable in their own right shows the highest skills possible for a writer.

And the best play I saw in 2014 is …

This was a tough decision. Taking into account everything – writing, production, innovation, staging – there were a good number of plays I’d be happy to give this to. But weighing things up, and making a decision that might be controversial for the fully professional theatres, I’m going to give this to Dugout Theatre for Inheritance Blues.

6791506503_9b3274c30f_zI’ve seen plenty of excellent productions from the big players this year, but it’s very rare for me to see a production up there with big names with so little of a professional background. I hope this can serve as a lesson to everyone on both sides of the professional/amateur divide. For big professional groups: do not look down on student and amateur groups and dismiss them out of hand, because when they’re at they’re best, they can be as good as you. For other student and amateur groups: I don’t want hear another soul say “Well, we don’t have to try too hard, it’s only a student/amateur production”. When you make the most of the talent you have available, this is what you can achieve.

At that concludes my 2014 awards. I hope all the winners can imagine giving their acceptance speeches. Let me know all the imaginary juicy gossip from the imaginary post-ceremony ball. You haven’t quite heard the last of my 2014 analysis, because I’ve still got to complete the count of the plays that went wrong. But goodbye to the best of 2014 theatre – let’s hope for a good list in 2015 too.

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