Chris Neville-Smith’s 2016 awards

Phew. Here we go one more time. I’ve counted how many plays I’ve reviewed in 2016, at it’s come to 92, with 3 others still pending. Yeek. I had no idea it was that many. Now it’s time to do the annual awards. It’s always an interesting exercise to do – whilst I have some front runners in mind for some awards, for many of the other categories I have no idea who’s going to win it until I’m forced to sit down and go through everything that’s a possibility.

Couple of slight changes this year. There are three new categories included; two quirky ones and one serious one. Other change is that the categories are going to be revealed in a slightly different order than before. This is because there is still one play left in 2016 for me to see, so I’m going to start with the categories it can’t win (e.g. it can’t win best new writing because it’s an adaptation). I have already pencilled in winners, but there’s still time for a late game-changer.

As always, the eligibility for this award is based on the highly arbitrary list of what I’ve seen in 2016. Most major productions in Newcastle and Durham get a chance – after that, with touring and fringe productions, it gets more arbitrary, with some winners only on the list by chance. One important exclusion to remind you of is that plays that have been in previous years by the same company on the same run are usually not eligible – this is so that long-running shows don’t unduly dominate the awards year after year.

I’ve run out of jokes about metaphorical drum rolls or inappropriately scantily-clad celebrities opening envelopes, so let’s get straight to it.

Best new writing

Plenty of awards will be based on performance, and good writing will always facilitate a good performance, but this is an award on the strength of the writing alone. In theory, it should be possible for another company to pick up the script and do just as good a production as the original one. The runner-up, however, might be holding on to his play for some time. It’s Robert Cohen with Something Rotten. His last two solo plays as writer-performer have both been at a high standard, but his play as Hamlet’s evil uncle giving his side of the story is the one that’s really stuck with me. Mixing Shakespeare’s story with extra back-story of Cohen’s own imagination, we see an uncle who – whilst still guilty as hell for regicide and plenty of other dastardly deed – was slowly driven into the arms of evil by a father who controlled him, a brother who betrayed him and a court jester Yorrick who really had it coming.

Melanie overhearing the murder plotBut the winner is a big gun (and a big gun whose plays typically become available for performance sooner rather than later). Alan Ayckbourn came so close to winning two years ago with Roundelay, only to be pipped at the post by Blink. This time, however, he wins with Consuming Passions. Repeating the format of interweaving stories that can be told in any order, this low-key pair of lunchtime plays was the absolute gem in a busy Ayckbourn-heavy season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. He did this ingeniously, offer two different experiences of unfolding stories depending on which one you see first, whilst the play balances very finely on two alternative premises – either the woman concerned really did have a premonition of a plot to murder her ex-boss, or it’s just wishful thinking from a woman with a history of delusions to her name. Even though Alan Ayckbourn retired as Artistic Director years ago now, he shows no sign of slowing down, and based on these play, he also shows no sign of losing his touch.

Best collaborative work

This award was introduced last year to recognise the great works produced through some sort of devised process. (And to serve as a pointer for the mediocre ones. And the crap ones.) This is again an award for the writing rather than the performance – great though the performances were of this year’s winner and runner up, the requirement is that, in theory at least, it should be possible to write the script down so that another company could pick it up and make a good production out of it. The runner-up is Dancing in the Dark. It’s about time Wired got some recognition here, because their site-specific productions at the Brighton Fringe have always been to a high standard, but this one topped the lot.The story revolves around a man’s secret life being discovered by his wife and family. I won’t disclose the spoiler here, but it’s a touching scene how they come to terms with it. Wired, please do this one again.

Dennis Nedry gets his comeuppance
“Now I’m going to die! It serves me right for being a greedy traitor.”

The winner, however, was unbeatable. The winner is Dinosaur Park (also known as Jurassic Park). Pretty much everybody who’s anybody has heard of Superbolt Theatre’s runaway hit by now. If you haven’t, see it. If you have heard of it but not sure it’s as good as people claim, it is, see it. On the surface, it’s a story within a story, as a family end up acting out the film they were supposed to show as a screening. Underneath, it’s a very moving tale of a family coming together one year after the death of their mother after years of drifting apart. With a potted three-person rendition of the Spielberg classic and parallels with the family’s life, Superbolt brought a whole new story to life. They will continue performing this next year – you must catch it.

Best revival/classic play

Of course, there’s plenty of great existing works out there, and great productions of those also deserve recognition. The runner-up is newly-eligible for this category. Invincible was premiered in 2014 at the Orange Tree Theatre, and two years later The Original Theatre Company has taken it on. It’s a play where a left-wing middle-class couple move to a new town and invite their working-class neighbours in to a part. It’s an intelligent play that highlights the disparity between lofty London-centric ideals and unglamorous northern reality, where good intentions blur into misguided snobbery. But there’s more depths to the characters than first meets the eye and – most interestingly – scarcely any clues as to what writer Torben Betts really thinks. And an excellent cast from The Original Theatre Company lose none of the impact of the original.

George and Lennie in Of Mice and MenFor the winner, it’s a far older play: John Steinbeck’s wonderful Of Mice and Men. Written and set in the American Great Depression, it tells the story of two migrant labourers and close friends, George and Lenny. With the loneliness of the migrant workers featuring so strongly in the story, loyal George gets by protecting trusting and naive Lenny from the world around him – and from himself. Steinbeck wrongfoots the audience into misjudging who you can trust and who you can’t, and it is that error of judgement that leads George and Lenny’s friendship to the ultimate tragedy. Birmingham Rep and Touring Consortium Theatre Company produce and stage it beautifully, with a heartbreak double-act from the leads and some gorgeous staging. Even the strange decision to put a door in the sky cannot stop me thinking about this play, and this is a clear winner for best classic of the year.

Most promising debut

This is a bit of a vague one because it’s difficult to pint down exactly what constitutes a “debut”. I’ve had to take a lot of liberties over previous years, but in general it needs to be someone doing something new which shows a lot of potential for the future. The show itself doesn’t necessarily need to be something great (although it usually is) – I’m more interested in seeing what you’re capable of. The winners of the last two years have gone on to great things, so take this seriously.

The runner up is Zoe Murtagh, who had her first Edinburgh Fringe show, Sacre Blue, this year. She got my attention from her distinctive style of performance. However it’s not Sacre Blue that’s scooped the award, but her other newer show, The Lamppost Petition. She is one of the most striking solo performers I’ve seen with a distinctive style, the only snag being that she tends to pack lots of ideas in one play beyond the audience’s ability to follow what’s going on. But she is quickly getting more disciplined (even if she denies that’s what she’s trying to do), and with a good balance of experimentation, trial and error, I am looking forward to what become of this.

ctyfrybwoaaukwnBut I’ve never seen anything like the winner. It’s Handheld Arts with Gated Community. Eight creepy stories set in eight houses built on one property. The stories themselves were quite good – I liked the concepts, but they tended to be over before they had begun. But the absolute gem was performing virtually the entire play using an overhead projector. From shadow puppetry of killer dolls to live acting of sheltered twins to a map of a house controlled by a sentient megalomaniac computer, there’s all sorts of clever tricks used to tell the eight tales. And this must have been a massive logisitcal triumph to perform at all. They seem to touring this in 2017, so if you’re thinking of booking this, I highly recommend you do, because this is one of the most different productions you will find.

Best north-east low-budget/fringe production

This is a new category for 2016, designed to cater for the growing number of fringe productions I see locally, thanks in large part to Alphabetti Theatre. They are of course eligible for the national award, but with the insanely high standards from the stuff I see Edinburgh and Brighton fringes, it doesn’t leave me enough room to recognise what’s going on locally (although The Frights managed to scoop runner-up for Best New Writing last year). One important clarification is that the theatre company must be based in the north-east – simply touring to the north-east doesn’t count. Also, as a rule of the thumb, once a play is commissioned by a fully professional theatre – even as a studio production – it ceases to be eligible for this award (this puts one serious contender out of the running).

Although there is no need to perform at Alphabetti, that’s where I see most of the contenders and both the winner and runner-up were seen there. The runner-up is the hilarious and wonderfully surrealistic Frank Sumatra. It’s supposedly a radio play, except the real humour is acting out the radio bits on stage, such as the sex scene at the beginning (don’t ask), before the arrival of Frank the orang-u-tang. Yes, this couple inadvertently signed up to a very literal “adopt-a-primate” scheme. Please tell me this is not the last we’ve heard of this play – it deserve a fringe tour, I’m sure it would do well.

Picture on wall: man holding sign saying And I was all set to name this as the winner in 2016, but – oh, so close! – it’s pipped at the post at the very last moment by How Did We Get To This Point? A surprise winner, because this was the last thing I expected to work. Combining the story of Alphabetti Theatre and its founder artistic director with verbatim stories of homeless people around Newcastle seemed a recipe for disaster on so many levels. But be it through ingenious artistic creativity or a massive fluke, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen performed in that basement, with a simple message that whatever your problems, there’s people not far away with worse problems than you. Unlike the runner-up, this is a piece of very local interest, so this is unlikely to be wowing Edinburgh Fringe any time soon, but there’s no better fitting winner than this play for local fringe.

Funniest moment

The other two new awards are a couple of quirkier ones. For some time, I was thinking of giving the award to Frank Sumatra. All of it was funny, but the radio drama-style sex scene was particularly hilarious.

However, this really has to go to The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show for the ten-minute play Nice Try and the funniest ever use of the word “please”. The entire premise of a play is that a downtrodden husband gets an S&M thrashing from his wife who would rather be dominated herself by some brute. And suddenly she seems to get what she wants when her husband demands she plays sub and he plays dom like they agreed, and they’re doing it NOW … please. Dan Greest’s delivery is topped by Annie Harris’s growing excitment, only to be shattered by his act of politeness. Jokes are always harder to explain in reviews than seeing it in person, but honestly, it;s one of those moments when they bring the house down with one word.

Tearjerker moment

And on the other side of the coin, the saddest moment. I considered various bits from On Mice and Men, such as George’s description of his unattainable dream home he wants for Lenny, but the problem is that I can’t really identify a single moment as a tearjerker unless you count the entire play as one.

So I think I’m going to plump for The National Joke, produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre and written by Torben Betts. Whilst the play was let down a bit by an over-reliance on political stereotypes, I really liked the relationships between three generations of women. One strong theme in the play is a mother trying to talk her daughter out of going to live with her irresponsible father in Australia – one who might get her back on to the drugs that could kill her. When she gets in a taxi without saying goodbye to anyone, there’s nothing mother can do except leave a desperate voicemail begging her daughter to come back. A lovely but heartbreaking moment acted by Cate Hamer and directed by Henry Bell.

Best adaptation

Now, this one has been thin on the ground in previous years. This time, it’s been one of the most heavily contested categories. I thought at the start of the year that Get Carter had this sewn up, but in the end this was one of many great adaptations. In order to thin out the competition a little, I’ve made a new rule that this category is for new or new-ish adaptations – revivals of old adaptations are instead eligible for Best revival/classic. So with Of Mice and Men out of the running, the competition is thrown right open. Plenty of possibilities that could have won in previous years. The runner-up is Lee Mattinson with The Season Ticket, adapted from the book of the same name (better known by the film adaptation of Purely Belter). A sensitively-told tale of two young lads at the bottom of the society pile, Northern Stage did a marvellous job bringing this cult classic to the stage.

frankenstein20blackeyed207Some bad news for Northern Stage though. In the end, though, the winner has to be Frankenstein from Blackeyed Theatre. Director Eliot Giuralarocca made his mark two years ago with Dracula. Out went fancy sound and lighting and in went the rediscovered lost art of acoustic sound. But the follow-up surpassed all expectations, with the format finely crafted, sound and music perfectly atmospheric, and most memorable of all, the life-size puppet of the creature. Northern Stage has their own version of Frankenstein coming up next year, but with Blackeyed Theatre doing a deserved encore tour, the position of unmissable Frankenstein adaptation in my recommendations is already taken. Congratulations Blackeyed Theatre, bad luck Northern Stage.

Most effective staging

This is getting a tougher category to judge. Effective staging can be anything from a high-budget high-production values extravaganza done well to a small production doing a low-key thing ingeniously. I might split this award into two in future years for high-budget and low-budget productions. However, I’m not going to do a last-minute rule change here and stick to one award up for grabs. As it happens, the top two places are at opposite end of the scale. The runner-up is Mobile from The Paper Birds. I’ve never seen anything like this. The play itself is a collection of verbatim stories about class difference, nothing too unusual about that format. But the outstanding part of the story is the caravan it’s told in. The view outside the window changes are the caravan “moves”; microwave ovens, clocks and kettles all have unique roles in telling the stories, and the lighting inside was impressive. Never seen anything like that before and I may not again.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fa9595474-b267-11e6-8513-587a14457823But in the dying hours of 2016, Mobile has been ousted from the top spot by James and the Giant Peach. A review for this is coming shortly; in the meantime, the headline is that it’s a good adaptation that’s good fun for the children, but the outstanding part of it was the production values, easily on par with touring West End shows, but done for a fraction of the budget. There was all sorts of challenges to staging this – how, for instance, does one stage an enormous peach growing on a tree, or James’s Mum and Dad being eaten by an escaped rhinoceros? – but every challenge is met in innovative ways. The best scene surely has to be the underwater scene, where George swims to the rescue of the centipede overboard, complete with blue wash lighting, giant jellyfish and bubbles filling the whole theatre. Pantomimes like to draw in the crowds with novelties such as 3D screening, but this blows the competition out the water.

Best individual performance

I’ve decided to go up to three places for best individual performance this year, in view of the large number of actors competing for this. Also because I can’t bear to let #3 go unrecognised here. Second and third place go respectively to William Rodell as George and Kristian Phillips as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. I’ve already said how good this play was on so many levels, but they couldn’t have done it without the incredible double act of the two leads. William Rodell wins the tiebreaker for the final scene, where George has to draw out his gun for the tragic final act of love. This play was very lucky to have those two in the leads.

5511527And the winner is Laura Matthews in Henceforward. The character of emotionally fragile Zoe was an excellent enough performance in the first half, but to then play the NAN-3000 android that is modelled on her likeness in the half required a lot of talent. Of course, actors can only be as good as the plays they are in, and the writing or directing of Alan Ayckbourn is a big contributing factor, but it’s testament to the greatness of him and his plays that he keeps finding such amazing actors to play his roles. Actors in Ayckbourn plays tend to hang around for a few years – let’s hope that Laura Matthews will be making many reappearances in Scarborough in years to come.

The “Well I liked it” award

Now the award for artists who I believe got less then they deserved from other reviewers. This year, I’m giving this to Sheepish Productions. I saw The Life and Crimes of Reverend Raccoon at Edinburgh following its original flawed run at Buxton, and saw the Edinburgh production was much improved. It was a shame that this didn’t get a second chance from other reviewers.

The winner, however, is their other play to Edinburgh, CommunicateReverend Raccoon was the better play of the two – this one struggles to stand out from other plays with similar twists – but it certainly didn’t deserve a one-star review. It got a couple of three-star reviews as well, but I’ve read the one-star review and it completely misses the point of the play. (I suppose I can defend the review as not being one of these horrible moral judgemental ones, but that’s all.) Please consider this my message to reviewers to carry on giving Sheepish productions a chance. Jeremy Fletcher should definitely not be written off on the basis of what a Broadway baby review says.

Unexpected Gem of the Year

Next, an award for a play which produces something great out of something I least expected. I seriously considered Alphabetti’s How Did We Get To This Point? for this, but as they’ve already scooped best local fringe, I’m turning my attention to others. Both top places this year are unexpectedly gentle plays, and this cannot be truer for the runner-up, Swansong. Dugout Theatre has a long track record of plays ranging from good to outstanding, so I wasn’t surprised this one was good, but it did surprise me that they could make such an uplifting play about a flood apocalypse. With the four survivors on a swan pedalo, out of all things.

howard-ward-and-george-evans-in-german-skerries_orange-tree-theatre_up-in-arms_photo-by-manuel-harlan-700x455The winner might be a hobby-horse of mine, but they deserve some recognition. It’s German Skerries, a play from the 1970s set in a birdwatching spot in Teesside. The story itself is thin (and deliberately so), but as an ex-Teessider whose childhood wasn’t long after this period, I can say that the depiction was absolutely spot-on. There shouldn’t be anything unusual about a play depicting a local area, but this is the north-east where too many artist thing north-east means Newcastle and the rest of the north-east is often treated like it doesn’t exist. It shouldn’t have to fall to a theatre company in the south-west to produce a play about the culturally marginalised half of the north-east, but Up In Arms Theatre did a beautiful job of it. Such a shame this never toured to Teesside.

Discretionary award

This is a completely open category to recognise anything that is not covered elsewhere. It can go to the runner-up of another execptionally-contested category if it deserved to be a winner, or it could be something completely different. In second place, the discretionary award goes to the Gala Theatre with The Fighting Bradfords, marking a return to new writing after years as nothing but a receiving theatre. Although, again, this play struggles to stand out from all the other World War One plays, it was a decent script, good production, and for once – hooray! – a local play at the Gala that doesn’t treat County Durham as a suburb of Newcastle. This play was one of many schemes this year to bring the Gala back on to the cultural map of the north-east, and having comes on leaps and bounds in 2016, I look forward to seeing how much more they can do in 2017.

snowflakes_1The winner of the discretionary award is Nina Berry and Live Theatre with The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes. The review for this is coming shortly. Having already seen a shorter version of this lovely play same time last year, I was expecting a good longer production this time round. What I was not expecting, however, was a 5* review in the Guardian.It’s a struggle for theatre out of London to get reviewers in national papers to come at all for mainstream productions, let alone studio productions. So for a first-time studio writer to land such a good review is unprecedented – I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen this happen before. The challenge now is that she’s set herself a very difficult personal best to top. Surely she’ll have a follow-up soon – will she be able to repeat the critical acclaim a second time round?

The “what the fuck?” award

This started off as an unofficial joke award I told only myself (along with my other secret award called the “How the hell did that get five stars” award that is staying secret). But there have been so many bizarre productions each year, I thought it was fair to give it some recognition. So the runner-up is Boris and Sergey: Preposterous Improvistion. Foul-mouthed puppets Boris and Segrey are always bizarre, even since I was called up to a casino game and renamed as “Angry Dan” whose violent temper could snap at any moment (luckily I was spared being made “Lucious Lucy” who bets with clothes). This time, with things being shouted out, I was treated to a whistle-stop tour of France (complete with can-can), Hawaii (hula-dancing), and Iceland (Bjork, bankers and volcanoes naturally. And man-eating sharks). They are also an insanely talented bunch of puppeteers to co-ordinate all of this on the fly, but this is marked on bizarreness and they perform handsomely.

However, in order to win this catergory you really need to traumatise me, and honour goes to BEASTS: Mr. Edinburgh 2016. They are a very silly sketch troupe, except that the humour isn’t really in the sketches (the jokes are invariably terrible) but in the arguments that always break out between the one who takes himself too seriously, the nerdy weedy one, and the big hairy one who takes his clothes off at any opportunity. This is no exception, and when the three change into their leotards to be the three finalists in Mr [Insert name of town/city in which show is being performed here], he has to wear the backsideless leotard. Thanks, that’s another six months of therapy for me. And he drank my pint – note to self for future years: do not leave drink unattended. Still, could have been worse – I could have been the pretty lady that he insisted on marrying at the end. Anyway, you get the idea. Can we agree they have to be the winners of this category?

Disappointment of the Year

After giving this a lot of thought, I’ve decided to give this to Babylon from The Flanagan Collective. Before I go any further, two important things to mention. Firstly. I must point out that I am basing this on a script-in-hand preview (at the Vault festival) rather than a finished performance. Normally, I am reluctant to comment on previews because there’s no knowing what will improve or change in subsequent development. However, the problem here wasn’t under-rehearsing or scrappy staging, it was the whole concept which, as far as I can tell, remained unchanged for the Adelaide Fringe. Secondly, a reminder that disappointment of the year does not necessarily mean worst play of the year. I saw worse in 2016. Boy, I saw worse. The difference here is that The Flanagan Collective is clearly a capable group who can do good shows, such as Fable, also at Vault, which I liked (not to mention dramaturg Joe Murphy who directed Blink, which I loved). How could this possibly go so wrong?

Okay, I’m not easy to please with political theatre. Off-hand, the only thing I can think of that moderately pleased me is E15. I don’t care what message your play is trying to give – as far as I’m concerned, it can be anything from Dirty Bastard Tory Scum to What’s all the fuss over Donald Trump anyway? But decent political theatre needs to be something persuasive, or at least a decent story with a message attached. Babylon is neither. Judging from the weird costumes the cast wear, I get the impression they were trying to mimic Caroline Horton’s Islands, and unfortunately this extended to making their message incomprehensible. But whilst I could at least understand who the bad guys were in Islands and why, I couldn’t even work out who they were supposed be depicting here. Sure, it’s a parody, you can caricature and exaggerate, but whoever they’re basing this on has been so wildly strawmanned that it’s turned into some generic right-wing bogeymen who do sinister right-wing things like control the press and ration the meat and depose the Queen to install a new puppet queen to announce all new government policies just like constitutional monarchs don’t.

The sound was good – it was a good score as this society fell apart and edged towards revolution; just a shame that the story itself had a wishful thinking element of “Hey, these people are angry enough to bring down their right-wing government by revolution, maybe you should be too”. Sure, maybe I’m not the target audience here, but if the target audience of people who already agree with you, what does that achieve? Don’t go down this route for political theatre; if you want to change people’s minds, you can do far better. So can the Flanagan Collective.

Best low-budget/fringe production

And here we are, down to the two most prestigious awards. The best low-budget/fringe award used to be a niche one, but as the standard of fringe productions I’ve seen has grown and grown, the standard has been getting higher and higher. As a result, this year, I’m going up to three places instead of the usual two. One important exclusion from this category is Dinosaur Park. This would have been a very strong contender, but after getting a West End run – even in a studio theatre – I decided this no longer qualifies as a low-budget/fringe production. Had I seen this last year in Edinburgh, if would have been a very close run against I Am Beast and Boris: World King.

So in third place, it’s The Jungle Book: Cobwebs and Moontalk. Strung up Theatre could have done a decent job with a faithful circus-heavy adaptation of the tale we know with Molgwi. But they didn’t, nor did they adapt the lesser-known Second Jungle Book that Kipling wrote. Instead, they put together a third story based on unused material of Kipling’s together with some stories from Kipling’s real life, to forma tale where a girl (later reveals to be Kipling’s daughter) goes into the jungle to look for her favourite elephant, to be befriended by Baloo and Bagheera seeking to protect her from Kaa (who is the super-villian in the play rather than the silly creature of the Disney version). Together with a convincing power-struggle in the jungle, this could easily pass off as the third novel from Rudyard Kipling himself. Together with a very talented cast, this play in out obscure outlying venue of the Edinburgh Fringe was an unexpected highlight.

In second place is Le Bossu, a musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. WithWings grabbed by attention two years ago with The Duck Pond, which was, out of all things, Swan Lake transplanted to a hook-a-duck stall. This time, it’s a much more faithful adaptation, where Quasimodo is still in the belfry of Notre Dame Cathedral in a city in the grip of a morally hypocritical church. But what WithWings still do if their wonderful music and staging. With a stage that starts off as a pipe organ, before later becoming a belfry, a confession box and everything in between, and an exquisite musical score, they had production values to the standards of the highest professionals. All the more amazing then that this every in the company does this on top of education and full-time jobs. If you ever need a reason why it’s wrong to assume theatre’s not worth considering if the performers have other careers, this is it.

the-bookbinder-lst172153And first place goes to The Bookbinder. This was also an Edinburgh Fringe show, but I saw this at the Brighton Fringe. In fact, I liked it so much I saw it twice. In spite of this being a solo show that can be performed on the smallest of stages, such as the Dukebox in Brighton, everything about it is top-notch: a beautifully-written script, a superbly-eerie soundtrack, and best of all, a most ingenious set. Everything you see in the apparently mundane office of a bookbinder seeking an apprentice comes into play as we hear him talk about the tale of a previous apprentice: a lamp-shade becomes an eagle’s nest, a jug of water becomes an ocean, and best of all, a gorgeously-crafted pop-up book of the old women who starts the adventure. This is an international tour and it has now left the UK, but it may well be back. You must keep an eye out for it and catch it when you can.

Best production

So here we are. One of the plays you have seen listed above is the winner of best production. Well done overall for an exceptional standard this year. Even with two places per category, there have been some good plays that didn’t make it on to the list because they were in the wrong category against the wrong competitor. But there can only be one winner, and now it’s time to pick a final winner.

So third prize for Best Production goes to …


Yes, the best fringe winner, The Bookbinder, scoops third place overall. Such is the high standard of the best of the fringe plays that best fringe production can easily go on to be the overall winner, and this was a serious contender for best production here. But this year, there has been a very strong showing from outside the fringe scene, and two other productions have edged ahead.

In second place …


Dinosaur Park might have missed out on best fringe on a technicality, but it storms the Best Production category. There’s so much to this play, and watching it the second time I picked up so much I’d missed the first time round. This play is still touring, with a performance at the Vault Festival coming up next. I may need to see this a third time. London folk, you have no excuse to miss it this time.

And now here it is. The moment of truth …


All of the top three were extremely strong contenders, but in the end, I went for Of Mice and Men. Ever since squeezing this into a buzy schedule back one week in March, I’ve always remembered this. It’s such a wonderful script it’s a wonder why this isn’t performed more often, but Birmingham Rep and Touring Consortium Theatre Company rose to the challenge marvellously and did thorough justice to the play in every way possible. This was already the second year of the tour so that’s probably it now, so if you want to see this, it could be up to you to produce it yourself.

So congratulations to everyone in that play, especially William and Kristian. That’s almost wraps 2016 theatre coverage. It’s not quite done because I’ve got a three final reviews to write up (for plays performed very close to the end of the year). But the battle for 2017’s awards begin now. Looking forward to find out what comes out in the next year.

One thought on “Chris Neville-Smith’s 2016 awards

  1. Richard Stamp January 6, 2017 / 12:30 pm

    Interesting comment about the lack of a single tearjerker moment in Of Mice And Men. There was something about that play which left me vaguely dissatisfied – despite all its obvious strengths – and I think maybe you’ve put your finger on what it was.

    I do remember thinking at the time that the ending was unhelpfully abrupt. In the novella, there’s a final conversation between George and Slim which reinforces how empty George’s life is going to be now. I don’t know whether Steinbeck cut that in his stage adaptation or the company trimmed it, but either way, I missed it – there was no opportunity for the characters to respond to what had occurred. And it’s not even as though the ending is a big shocking twist… it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen from a long way back, and (if I’m remembering correctly) George explicitly announces it with a couple of scenes to go.

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