Chris Neville-Smith’s 2015 awards

It’s that time of year again. In recognition of all the hard work of all the groups I’ve seen over the year, and in no way a shameless attempt to generate more web traffic for this blog, here are my list of awards. With a panel of one seeing lots and lots of plays over the year, a shortlist of plays was put forward and a jury of one spending hours deliberating over the verdict, I finally have a list of winners.

A few changes this year. For a start, I’m going to gradually announce the winners over five days in a completely unnecessary drive to build up tension. More interestingly, this year I’ve picked a runner-up for most categories, because I felt too many good plays would go unrecognised otherwise. Finally, I’ve added a couple of new categories this year: one is “Best collaborative work” to cater for the increasing number of devised theatre pieces I see that aren’t crap; the other, well, you’ll see when I get round to that.

Quick reminder of the other rules: this list is open to anything I first saw in 2015 – and what I see, especially at the festival fringes, largely comes down to luck. Productions I saw in previous years are generally not eligible for consideration, so that long-running successful shows don’t unfairly dominate the awards, although there will be one case here where I’ll bend that rule.

So, no more “didn’t they all do well”, it’s time to pick the winners. Okay, here we go …

Best New Writing

There’s a lot of plays I could have considered for this award, so to make it easier this year, I’ve restricted this to plays developed in the conventional way where the writer does the script first, and the director directs later. Lots of the plays I saw were made what they were through key actors making the part their own, or a collaborative process contributing contributing to the script, but this award is for a play on the strength of the script – everything else is just a bonus.

So the runner-up is The Frights, back in March when Alphabetti launched their new theatre. To some extent, the play itself became a side-show against the backdrop of the grand opening, but Louise Taylor’s script was actually a damned good play in its own right. Covering the aftermath of a kidnapping of an aid worker, this play covered a lot of moral dilemmas, never once lecturing us with right or wrong, but instead providing a lot of food for thought.

Production shot from Where do Little Birds Go?

However, when comparing the strength of the scripts, I think I’m going to give this to Where Do Little Birds Go? It was an great all-round job by director, performer and creative team, but it was the excellent script that made the play what it was. Based on a real case of a kidnapping of a 18-year-old hostess by the Kray twins, where little is known about the true story, Camilla Whitehill imagines a heartbreaking backstory of a naive Lucy Fuller who believed that working in the Blind Beggar was a route to stardom. Incidentally, this play has just been released by Samuel French, so if you’ve got a suitable actress seeking a challenging solo performance, this may well be what you’re looking for.

Best adaptation

Some years I have to rack my brains for memorable productions I can count as adaptations. This year, however, there were two very strong contenders, both with good scripts based on the original books, and both of them excellently realised by their respective directors. It was a tough time choosing between the two, but I’ve done it.

In a close second place is Royal and Derngate with Brave New World, adapted by Dawn King from the legendary novel by Aldous Huxley. And much of the success is down, once again, to the directing of James Dacre. In every play I’ve seen him direct, he has a distinctive dark style that suits the play perfectly, and this was no exception.

curious-incident-124But for the winner, I think I’m going to stick with the excellent adaptation I saw at the start of the year for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Mark Haddon’s bestselling book understanding the mind of an autistic teenager, the playwriting skills of the legendary Simon Stephens and the directing of Marrianne Elliott, was always going to be a strong contender, and they did not disappoint. But it’s clear that Elliott’s vision, that made War Horse the runaway success it was, has carried over to this play and turned a competent adaptation into an excellent memorable one. When a director is best known for one smash hit, there’s usually a lingering suspicion that the director is just a one-trick pony. Curious Incident safely proves she’s far more than that.

Best collaborative work:

This is a new award to recognise that a lot of excellent pieces I see, particularly at festival fringes, don’t have a conventional writer and director. Most devised theatre pieces I’ve seen are disappointing, but the few that aren’t can be outstanding. You can still be eligible if you used a dramaturg and/or writer to create a final script from early devised exercises, or it can be a pure devised piece where all the participants had equal input – what’s important is that the final play produced is the products of many people’s ideas, and not just one writer.

So in second place is a play that I almost threw on to the pile of bad devised pieces after five mionutes, but I’m glad I gave them a chance because it was great. It’s 1972: The Future of Sex, which was, like many devised pieces, a collection of ideas on an open-ended theme. But whilst a lesser group would have made this into a mish-mash of vaguely-related scenes, The Wardrobe Ensemble pulled them together into some tight interwoven stories, with some highly organised staging and choreography. This group has been building a reputation in Edinburgh over the last few years, and with so many groups coming to the Fringe who haven’t thought their devised pieces through, it’s good that groups like this one show how it’s done.

CMC1gGgW8AAV51pBut way in the lead, the winner is Sparkle and Dark with I Am Beast. Apart from last year’s play where Louisa Ashton took a break from lead writer, Sparkle and Dark usually work on a system where characters and storylines are developed b the cast, and Louisa makes a script out of it. It’s hard to say who gets credit for what (except that Louisa obviously wrote the part of harlot henchwoman Yolanda for herself and enjoyed it too much), but there’s no question over the end product. Once again, Sparkle and Dark put their own fantastical take on a difficult in the real world, this time a bereaved and depressed Ellie who takes refuge in a superhero adventure world created between her and and late mother. I am used to Sparkle and Dark doing a great kjob of whatever they embark on, but this may well be the best one yet. And with such a winning formula of lead writer, director and musical director, we can surely expect more to come yet.

Best revival / classic play

Taking the runner-up spot this year is Blackeyed Theatre with their faithful performance of John Godber’s Teechers. There’s a few touches that director Adrian McDougall added to his take, but everything that mattered stayed the same. The only major change from the original was that the part of Hobby was changed from a girl to a boy, but the best possible testament I can give to the way this was done is: we didn’t notice any difference. Blackeyed Theatre clearly have a good track record of small-scale productions, and they lived up to their high expectations here.

"Arthur" stands in front of the house prjected on the curtainFor the winner, I’m going to slightly bend the rules on previous productions. Normally, if I have already seen a play performed by the same company in a previous year, it is not eligible for the awards, so that long-running classics don’t dominate these awards on multiple years. But I’m making an exception for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s version of The Woman in Black because their version is – dare I say it? – even better than the version that’s been touring the country for the last three decades. The 400-seater Fortune Theatre and the even larger regional venues this play tours to host great performances, but nothing beats the uncomfortably close space of Stephen Joseph’s studio theatre. My only regret is that we don’t see more performances of this play in these intimate venues that the play was originally written for. So come on, to a tour of small venues. Go on, you know you want to.

Most effective staging

Set design, sound, lighting and a whole load of other stuff can contribute to scooping this award. But it’s not just about which production has the flashiest high-budget staging. Had it been judged on both those terms, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time would have been the runaway winner, but I’m more interested in seeing how groups on lower budgets can produce something just as effective on a fraction of the resources. There are two plays in particular that stand out here.

Sparkle and Dark get second place with I Am Beast. No surprises this one does well, because their plays have a long track record of stunning results from innovative staging with only modest resources. And in this case the glory is mostly chared between set designer Anna Shuttleworth for her multipurpose teenage bedroom (or Paradise City under UV light), and Lawrence Illsey’s music yet again creating the perfect atmosphere.

Production shot from Five Feet in FrontBut Sparkle and Dark have been pipped at the post by a group that came out of nowhere. The Letter Room were a group hand-picked by Northern Stage in 2013, and I figured they’d do a decent job of devised theatre, but I had no idea they were so skilled innovative with their staging too. Five Feet in Front: The Ballad of Little Johnny Wylo had everything that fit the atmosphere of a corrupt town in the Wild West: a dilapidated set of various dry and seedy dwellings, suitable lighting, suitable back-lighting, and – oh, did I mention everyone in the Letter Room can sing and play instruments? – live music. If this is the shape of things to come with the graduates for Northern Stage’s annual NORTH programme, it bodes very well.

Best individual performance

I put a lot of thought into this one, because in most of these awards, the credit primarily goes to the writer or director. This is the one chance for the glory to go to the actor. So whilst I’m sticking to a winner and runner-up, I want to give credit to two other actors who I gave serious consideration to: Dave Benson as Boris Johnson in Boris: World King and Lizzie Muncey as Ellie in I Am Beast, both of whom were excellent.

In second place, however, I think I’m going to go for Jamie Chapman as Roy in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s revival of Tim Firth’s Neville’s Island. I remain unconvinced by director Henry Bell’s decision to have a red and white set to represent an island in the middle of Lake Windermere, but I can’t fault his direction of the four actors. They all put in excellent performances, but it was Jamie Chapman’s performance that was outstanding. Roy is the devout Christian, using his evangelism to hide from reality and the death of his mother, only to be cruelly torn to shreds by office bully Gordon, and all of this was captured beautifully.

Rachel Wood in Request ProgrammeHowever, there was one unbeatable performance that blows the tough competition away, and that is Rachel Wood in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Programme from Thrust Theatre. There are countless opportunities to put in a stunning performance from a monologue – but this play had no words at all. Instead, she plays a nameless young woman who returns from work, gets on with her life, whilst all the time little things crop up that suggests that something is not right. Oh yes, and this was performed in a flat with up to 15 people following her around as she just gets on with ordinary things in her life – until the moment when she can’t face it any more. The glory probably needs to be shared with director William Bowden, who apparent spent a lot of time planning this routine, but the end result was superb, if tragic. When I started doing this award, I’d assumed this would be dominated by monologues and lead roles. This year and last year has shown me that sometimes the best performance are things that I’d never have guessed.

Most Promising Debut

This award has been a tricky one to define. I’d started off using this for groups I’d never heard of before – usually a group who’s doing their first performance at a fringe – but some groups, even groups making a fringe debut, have a long history of high-profile productions that I didn’t know about. What I’m really interested in, however, is potential for future productions. So what I’m currently counting a “promising debut” is a piece that 1) is something that’s different to anything the artist/group has done before, and 2) has things in it that I think bode well for the next piece. I’m open to suggestions for better definitions.

So I’ve done my painstaking search to decide what I can and can’t accept as a debut, and I have a verdict. One important clarification is that a promising debut needn’t have been that great a piece in its own right – I’m more interested in the likelihood the next one being great – but this year I needn’t use this get-out clause because both the winner and runner-up were excellent.

Taking second place is Buckle Up Theatre, with Bump! I didn’t think this would be eligible because this was such a highly organised and heavily choreographed piece (not to mention a lovely play to watch) that anyone would assume they’d had a long run on the fringe scene getting this right, but no, Buckle Up Theatre didn’t even exist before embarking on this play. Admittedly, I am rewarding them for doing the one thing I tell people not to do, which is go straight to the Edinburgh Fringe, but, hey, there’s nothing wrong with reckless gambles when they pay off.

Promotional image for Yve Blake: Lie CollectorFor first place, I am taking the same liberty with the meaning of “debut” as I did last year. The winner of most promising debut is Yve Blake: Lie Collector, and like last year’s winner, Alice Mary Cooper, she’s been to the Edinburgh Fringe before, but that time round it was in the Free Fringe with a fun piece. This time, it was a serious high-profile attempt with a major venue, with no get-out clause of “it was only a bit of fun” if things don’t work out. But whilst the status of “debut” might be tenuous, I’ve no doubts over the “most promising” bit. Last time round there was hints of things to comes – satirising the self-obsession of the millennial generation, an insecure and vulnerable inner character inside a hyperenthusiatic exterior – that formed the basic of a highly-polished show this year. But this time round, we were introduced so many new things: music, storytelling, eviscerating social media culture, and – most promising – bringing an unexpectedly dark ending to comedy act. Any or all of these could form the basis of the next project. Many solo acts fall off the radar after running out of ideas, but Yve Blake has lots of options open to her for the future. She’s come on further than I ever imagined over the last three years, so I’m really looking forward to the next three.

The “Well, I liked it” Award

This is my annual award for a show that I think got less than it deserved. Sometimes it’s a show that deserved larger audiences than it got, and sometimes it’s a show that deserved better reviews than it got. This year, it’s the latter.

Follow-UnfollowThe “Well, I liked it” award goes to Lantern Theatre with Follow/Unfollow. This play went to the Buxton Fringe first and then on to Edinburgh, and it was perhaps one of many groups that would have benefited from holding off Edinburgh until they were ready for it. Neither the Buxton nor the Edinburgh reviews were terribly good, and I do think the criticisms were broadly fair. But what I will add to these reviews is that whilst the play might not work out in its current form, the premise is excellent. The play follows the downfall of Ryan, a vlogger sensation who’s sold his soul to the forces of international capitalism. In the parallel story is the rise of Chloe, at first a critic of Ryan, then a target for cyberbullying (led by Lulu, #1 Ryan fan and crazy mad psycho bitch brilliantly played by Josie Sedgwick-Davies), then a hero for standing up to them – and finally, a vlogger sensation just as shallow as Ryan used to be. I think there was only real mistake Lantern made, and that was to underestimate how ambitious this project was. With its multi-threaded storyline and social comment, my guess is that you need a full-length play for this idea to work. But should Lantern Theatre choose to persist with this idea, there could be a successful play made out of this yet.

The “What the fuck?” Award

Here is a new award I’d been secretly assigning for the last few years, for a group that makes me think- … well, yes, you can probably guess. (By this, I mean thinking it in a good way – I could do another award for performers that made me think “What the fuck?” in a bad way, but I’m not that cruel.) A strong contender that inspired me to start this award was a local band called “Stabbing Les”, where a typical performance had the band in nuclear waste protective suits, lead singer in his trademark ski mask and golden thong singing out of tune, and a Christian preacher storming the stage halfway through to stop this sinful nonsense. I was sure their follow-up this year would be a shoo-in.

But no! It’s a shock defeat for Stabbing Les. Who has outdone them on bizarreness? In second place, it’s Half-Arsed Flyerer, the “show” that consists of a half-arsed flyerer doing his half-arsed flyering. Seriously. The flyer give the name of the show as “Half Arsed Flyerer” and the time and is 12-2 on the Royal Mile i.e. where you are now. Congratulations. You have already seen the show.

darkroom_robertson2And first place goes to none other than John Robertson with The Dark Room, a multiple choice adventure game that begins when you awake to find yourself in a dark room. It helps if you remember the computer text adventure games of the 1980s, but not much, because the outcome of the adventure depending on your choices is even more arbitrary than the aforementioned text adventure games. Apparently, it is possible to win the game and win £1,000, but I can only assume someone made some very lucky guesses. Anyway, as well as being totally random and the most bizarre thing I saw in 2015, it was also very very funny.

Unexpected Gem of the Year

One of the best things about festival fringes is sometimes you can see something that you’d never imagine for a play – or even something which you’d think couldn’t possibly make a good play.

So taking runner-up for unexpected gem is Brighton Beam with the lovely lovely lovely My Friend Lester. I shouldn’t really count this as a play at all – it’s got more in common with a jukebox musical, and there’s just a few snatches of dialogue between a compendium of Billie Holliday and Lester Young’s greatest hits. But the few exchanges between the songs are done beautifully, and the songs themselves reflect the many joyous and tragic moments in Billie and Lester’s lives. Possibly the finest example I have of a jukebox musical for people who don’t like jukebox musicals.

Production shot of InigoBut the winner is totally unexpected – and, for a change, not something I saw at a festival fringe. Everyone got a list of subjects that they think might interest them in a play, but most people wouldn’t expect a theological squabble over acceptable interpretations of Christ’s teachings in 16th-century southern Europe to be on this list. Well, guess again. Inigo is a fascinating play by Jonathan Moore about Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits at a time when the Vatican was at the height of its power and the wrath of the Inquisition for stepping out of line could be swift and terrible. Even with me a 100% atheist, there were fascinating parallels between the followers of Jesium and – so it appears – the followers of the original Jesus, along with the accompanying bitterness and power-struggles. And I expected plays on religious themes to be bogged down with turgid theological philosophy. Put this down as a play about religion for people who don’t like plays about religion.

Disappointment of the Year

Now we come to this one. It’s going to be nothing like the fierce contest of last year. I saw plenty of plays I didn’t like, but they were mostly from beginners where mistakes are forgiveable and inevitable. That’s not to say there weren’t disappointments elsewhere. The lack of disappointing plays I saw was offset by numerous incidents of poor unfringelike behaviour. There wasn’t – thank goodness – any organised campaigns of political censorship using intimidation of the mob to get their way, but I did hear a lot about acts cancelling without telling anyone they’re not turning up, companies staging a play one third of the length they advertised, and the odd cases of hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and general nastiness that blights the Edinburgh Fringe. I was sorely tempted to forget about choosing a disappointing play and instead name and shame one of the worst offenders here.

But I’m going to stick with choosing the most disappointing play I saw, and my choice, with some regret, is There’s a Guy Who Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis. It’s with some regret because 1) they’ve not engaged in any of the hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness or general nastiness I was talking about and 2) I saw four plays in 2014 that were easily worse than this one. But sadly, for a play that occupied a two-hour headline slot in the main space of a significant venue at the Edinburgh Fringe, it was a big let-down. I just couldn’t work out what this play was supposed to achieve. On the one hand, it felt like a highly contrived storyline in order to meet the requirements of the title of the aforementioned Kirsty MacColl song; on the other hand, I’m afraid to say it felt like large of the script felt like score-settling over some acrimonious divorce in real life. Whatever the intention, the play dragged at a painfully slow pace. To give credit where it is due, all of the actors in the play were excellent musicians and the musical numbers were all performed well, but the songs were almost always shoehorned into the play so blatantly. It’s fair to point out that not everyone agrees with me here – this play got glowing reviews from The Express and The Stage. But that only adds to the disappointment for me. Such a disappointment for a relaunched venue.

Best Low-budget/Amateur/Fringe Production:

Observant followers of this blog may have noticed I’ve left this award until near the end of the list this year, whilst previously it appeared half-way through. There is a reason for this. As you might have noticed, the awards up to now have been dominated by the fringe companies, with not much representation from the big regional theatres. It’s not been a bad year from regional theatres as such, but there’s not been that many plays with the required “wow” factor. Anyway, the upshot of this is that with few non-fringe plays being serious contenders, there’s a high chance that whoever wins this category will go on to win Best Production. Don’t want to give away spoilers too early.

So for the best low-budget, amateur or fringe production, there were a lot of good plays that I’d have been happy to give this two, but taking into account originality, writing and performance, there were two performances that stood out. Between them, it was very difficult to decide, and I spent months agonising over the decision. In the end, as a tie-breaker, I considered which of the two was more original against previous works of the same company, because on all other criteria it was a dead heat. But I have made a decision.

So the runner-up for Best Low-budget/Amateur/Fringe production is Sparkle and Dark with I Am Beast. I’ve already mentioned the good things about the play in previous awards, but to sum it up here: great story from a collaborative process, the best staging ever from a Sparkle and Dark play, wonderful atmospheric music befitting the soundtrack of a comic superhero world, and great performances from all the cast, especially the lead. Probably the only thing I haven’t mentioned is the tight choreography of the cast of four, thanks to Shelley Knowles-Dixon’s directing. That’s four productions I’ve seen them do now, and they haven’t disappointed once.

Boris Johnson on his Boris bikeBut the winner by whisker is a company who have been Edinburgh Fringe regulars for longer, but until a recently they were just another fringe regular. But in the last two fringes, their success has taken off faster anyone could imagine. Best Low-budget/Amateur/Fringe production goes to Three’s Company Tom and Yaz have a long record of producing two kinds of plays: the occasional serious one, but mostly their trademark zany yet surrealistic comedies the usually feature compulsory audience participation, such as last year’s all-round smash hit Shakespeare for Breakfast. This year it was Boris: World King, which was both more of the same but also something very different. Because although it was another slapstick farce starring everyone’s favourite comedy politician, underneath there was a serious message about how Boris Johnson gets away with too much owing to his buffoon image. And this makes the point far more effectively than any number of newspaper columns or speeches from political rivals. The success of this play has eclipsed even last year’s triumph, with solid sell-out runs and high-profile fans from Giles Brandeth to Kezia Dugdale. Congratulations to Tom, Yaz, Dave and Alice for surely surpassing everyone’s expectations.

Discretionary award

Before I name my overall winner, the last award is the one for something not covered by any of the above categories that I think deserves recognition. In previous years, it’s been given for unusual ideas, innovative ways of presenting plays, or a consolation prize when a very strong play got beaten by another one in that category. This year, however, I’m going to choose a winner and runner-up for new reasons.

The runner up for the Discretionary Award is the promenade performance of The House of Usher at the Empty Shop by a group affiliated to Durham Student Theatre. Setting up a building for a promenade performance of this complexity is extremely risky, with so many things that can go wrong, and yet this was one of the most memorable productions of the year. I can’t decide whether this group was extremely well organised or utterly reckless but very lucky. Either way, this earns the runner-up spot for sheers guts to take on this sort of project.

Production shot from The FrightsThe award, however, is for a different kind of guts. The winner of my Discretionary Award is Alphabetti Theatre, nominally for The Frights, but more widely for all the other work that led up to this and followed on afterwards. The Frights was a great play, but what made it even greater was its landmark status in Newcastle’s theatre history. A lot of work and a lot of risk went into setting up the theatre to perform this play in, but they pulled it off and what followed in the rest of the year bodes well too. Not everything in the first year was perfect, but no fringe theatre ever has perfect productions all the time. There is a very high chance that when we look back on theatre in Tyne and Wear in 2015, we will forget which plays were shown and instead remember it as the year Alphabetti Theatre began.

And the award for Best Production goes to …

Before getting on to best production, congratulations to everyone mentioned so far, and apologies to many productions that didn’t. Even with the introduction of two new categories and runners-up in most categories, there still wasn’t room to mention all the great plays I saw in 2015. It’s a tough job picking winners.

So let’s get on to best production. This is open to absolutely anything I saw last year as a best all-rounder. It can be a big touring production, a small production from a regional theatre, or the smallest of fringe productions – it’s simply a matter of what impressed me the most. As this year has had lots of representation of the festival fringes and little representation elsewhere, you might think that the winner of best fringe production is going to be a good indication for overall winner. So I can now tell you that there are no further surprises coming. Best production came down to an agonising choice between two exceptional plays, they were both fringe plays, and they were the same two I was agonising over earlier.

Which means that second place for Best Production is …

Publicity image for I Am Beast

Sparkle and Dark with I Am Beast. Not only was this exceptional against the standard of the other plays at the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes, it was exceptional against standard of the theatre I saw completely. It’s been a long journey for Sparkle and Dark over the last five years, but it’s been getting better and better and better.

But the winner, coming down to the same tie-breaker for originality against other works of the same group, is quite unsurprisingly this:

11c26d10-fb9c-4669-b6de-4aad81479af9-1020x638

Yes, Three’s Company finally wins Best Production with Boris: World King. There’s no stopping over favourite comedy politician and there’s no stopping Three’s Company. A tough challenge fought of from their fellow Buxton Fringe headliners, but other than this they blow the competition out the water. But I don’t need to blow their trumpet – they’ve already been getting widespread acclamation far and wide. So, what does Three’s Company do next? Carry on building themselves in Edinburgh? Setting a foothold in London? Carrying on with the small production or setting sights on something bigger?

So congratulations to Tom Crawshaw, Yaz Al-Shaater, Dave Benson, and Alice McCarthy. If I’ve missed anyone, congratulations to them too. Can the Edinburgh Fringe make it a hat trick for Best Production? Will a northern producing company re-take the crown? 2016 has now begun, so join me again next December for the 2016 awards.

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