And it’s that time of year. Time to pick some winners for the whole of 2017. And, boy, there’s been some tough choices this time round. Some of these categories I’ve been certain of a winner for months, but for others I’ve been changing my mind repeatedly up to the very last moment. But I have made my decisions, so now it’s time to announce them.
As always, a reminder of the ground rules. Anything I saw for the first time this year is eligible, whether I wrote a review or not. This includes plays previously excluded from review coverage owing to conflicts of interest (that’s a teaser). The only notable exclusion is that plays I have seen in previous years from the same company are not eligible a second time round – this is so that the awards are not dominated by long-running successful shows. So this puts I Am Beast out of the running, something that was a previous runner-up for best production and would have been well-placed for several awards this time round.
So, who’s won? The list is drawn up, envelopes are checked, and any mix-ups involving La La Land are safeguarded against. Here we go.
Best New Writing
This was a tricky one, but not the the usual reason. This time, it came down to a question of whether the winning entry can be considered new writing. This means this year’s runner-up can be considered the winner if you disagree with my ruling. So in second place for best new writing (or first if you argue that the winner doesn’t count) is BlackCatfishMusketeer. There were a lot of good scripts this year, but the thing that stood out with this one was the fact that the entire play was written in instant messages on a dating app. As any writer knows, things that read well on the page (or screen) rarely sound so good when spoken, but Dylan Coburn Grey managed to do both. With a clever unexpected twist on the issue of trust, Malaprop Theatre comes out of nowhere to come so close to scooping one of the best awards.
So what went to a stewards enquiry but has gone on to win? It’s Patrick Marber with The Red Lion. Live Theatre’s production this year was not a premiere – that was at the Dorfman Theatre (the smallest of the three spaces in the National Theatre) in 2015. In the end, I made a decision based on what this award recognises: a successful production on the strength of a conventionally-written script, as opposed to a production that does a good production of an earlier well-known play, or a play whose script was a joint effort of the cast – both of those have their own awards. And there’s a lot to be said about Patrick Marber’s script here: a four-way power-struggle in the world of non-league football, where alliances and ambitions rise and wane on the dealings of three men in the dressing room of the club they all call home. It’s a world he knows intimately, a world he’s creating convincingly on stage, and the characterisation of the three men – all with their own hopes, strength, fear and weaknesses – is superb. It may be second time lucky for this play to gain a successful West End run, and it’s a wonder that the National didn’t make more of this the first time round, but, hey, the National’s loss is Live Theatre’s gain.
One newcomer to 2017 is the New Vic Theatre. I’ve often wanted to go to this theatre, but this year, for reasons unrelated to my own theatre escapades, this has suddenly become a lot easier (which means, amongst other things, I have to get used to people talking about Newcastle and not meaning the other Newcastle). I saw four plays, and the New Vic hasn’t wasted their time.
In second place, it’s a New Vic favourite Around the World in 80 Days. This was very popular in Stoke and Newcastle (under-Lyme) two years ago, so it’s been back for a national tour this year. It’s not an easy novel to adapt, as the Jules Verne original is an epic, but Laura Eaton still manages to produce a faithful adaptation that covers all the important developments of the story, and most importantly, captured the character of Phileas Fogg very well. And still left room for a high-energy highly-choreographed performance, so it’s wonder people were crying out for a tour.
The winner of best adaptation is a Northern Broadsides production, but the New Vic were co-producers and hosted the play at the start of its tour in February: Cyrano de Bergerac. Deborah McAndrew has done many adaptations of classic plays, but most of them have been transplanted to various modern day settings; this one stayed in 17th-century France. But everything else that makes the McAndrew/Nelson productions the successes they are is there: endless imaginative staging and choreography, fitting music throughout the play, and – most important of all – a flawless scripts that makes the story easy for anyone to understand. One of the biggest barriers to many pre-20th century scripts is the language that’s hard to follow for anyone who’s not a literary buff. Deborah McAndrew’s adaptations have all been consistently good, so it’s no surprise she scoops Best Adaptation for the second time.
Best Collaborative Work
This award was introduced last year in recognition of the increasing number of plays that aren’t the product of a conventional writer and script, but instead a wider creative process where all the cast is involved. This time, however, both first and second place go one step further and widen the collaborative process to the people whose stories are being told.
In second place, it’s The November Club with Beyond the End of the Road, set in rural Northumberland. They are not the only north-east group who set a play in a town somewhere in the north-east, but the November Club does it a lot better than most. It’s easy to produce a play with a depiction of a place that’s convincing to anyone except the people who actually live there. But the November Club painstaking researched this and, by all accounts, this paid off handsomely. Adding in the music and staging for this play, The November Club has set an example for how it’s done which Northumberland and be proud of. County Durham and Teesside should take note.
And in first place, it’s Leaving from Curious Monkey (co-produced with Northern Stage), telling the stories of young people leaving the care system. A lot of the success of this play is down to Paddy Campbell. He is at his strongest when he writes about what he knows, and this could not have been a better play for him, but it’s not just that. He also somehow managed to get people to open up and include some fascinating stories that another writer may have known nothing about. But it’s not just the writing that made this play what is it: it was also excellently devised into a proper production, sometimes humourous, sometimes inventive, sometimes moving. This year, I felt this play got less than it deserved – the review were good, but attention mostly went to other plays going on Northern Stage’s main house at the same time. Next year, this play will be back on tour. You have no excuse to miss it next time, and I hope this will get the credit that is due.
Turning attention now to well-known plays, this award is not for whichever company performs my favourite old play but who does the best production. It can be innovative or faithful, as long as you make a good job of it. For the runner-up, there were several plays I could have picked, but in the end I went for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I am yet to be convinced this is best suited to the round, but there’s still a lot of things I liked about Paul Robinson’s take. The character of Sadie, only a bit part in the film, has a much bigger role in the stage play and he handled this beautifully. Most importantly, he didn’t try to make Serena Margheti into Jane Horrocks. that, I think, would have been a mistake, and instead we have a very different LV who suits the story just as well.
But there was really only one contender for best classic this year, and that was Northern Stage and Nottingham Playhouse with East is East. Like Little Voice, whilst the important details of the story stay the same, there are notable differences between the play and the film adaptation, and director Suba Das kept his eye on the ball and made the play work for what it is rather than try to imitate the film. One important aspect of the play is keeping all of the characters of the large family individual and memorable, which this play does well. But the thing that most impressed me about the production was the technical merit. The production was done on a triangular-shaped stage – normally that is the death sentence for sightlines, but somehow the play was blocked to always have the slightlines clear, with movements needed to do this never looking forced on contrived. Suba Das says that wasn’t his doing, it was the cast, but I think he’s under-selling himself here, and he deserves his play to land this award.
Most promising debut
This award is for a play that may or may not have been notable in its own right, but I can see a lot of potential for the artists to take forward into new productions. So in second place is someone who you haven’t seen on this blog before. On the list of productions I don’t review owing to conflict of interest is plays that hire the City Theatre (being a director of the company that owns the theatre), but I absolutely must give recognition to Fourth Wall Theatre for Five Kinds of Silence – and, more specifically, directors Hetty Hodgson and Damson Young. I normally make allowances for student productions, what with most directors doing this for the first time, but this was not only a cut above all the other student hires but also a cut above some semi-professional productions. With Shelagh Stephenson’s gloomy tale of abuse originally written as a radio play, there are very little visual elements in the script, but whilst other companies may have settled for a static, wordy production, these two put their own moves into the play making it greater than the sum of its parts. It was even – dare I say it – better than the Edinburgh Fringe production last year from the highly-regarded People’s Theatre.
In first place, however, I’ve decided to go for La Vie Dans Une Marionette. This Edinburgh Fringe play was advertised as a family play suitable for ages 7+. I’m not sure that was the right choice of target age, because this struck me as too difficult for any 7-year-old to follow. But there are a lot of things I liked about this play: some lovely acting in the style of French silent movies, some nice touches of surrealism (such as the silent man, silent marionette and a moon that can talk), and, most of all, some gorgeous music created for the play. I can’t decide what’s the best direction for White Face Crew to go in, whether they should persist in their efforts to make their plays accessible to primary school age, or forget about that and make the most of all the good things they’ve already got going for them. But whilst there may still be work to do, this stuck in my mind as one of the most memorable Edinburgh Fringe experiences, and something I’d love to see again.
Best north-east low-budget/fringe production
This year, with Alphabetti Theatre out of action for six months, we’re thinner on the ground for contenders than 2016, but there’s still a good mix to pick from. One important clarification of what this award means: this is for plays the originated in the north-east. Plays that I saw outside the region that originated inside are eligible; plays the originated outside the region that toured to us are not. There were several plays I’d be happy to give second place to, but in the end I went for Bonnie and the Bonnettes’ Drag Me To Love. It’s quite a simple story – Cameron Sharp’s only story of his own teenage years as a drag artist – but it’s very watchable, often funny, and has an unexpectedly poignant ending. All eyes now on whether this will find greatness on the fringe circuit.
But there’s no competing with the winners. The best north-east fringe production has to go to The Letter Room for No Miracles Here. This is their second award so I needn’t repeat the reasons, but surely they must be envy of a lot of other north-east groups, having got so much talent in so many areas from such a small ensemble. This could be their last year eligible for this category, because they are surely going to be getting a lot more backing from a bigger theatre sooner or later, but congratulations on winning whilst you have the chance.
Bonnie and the Bonnettes may have missed out on the category above, but for this one they’re unbeatable. The indisputable funniest moment of 2017 has to be the rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart in Drag Me To Love. Those of you who saw this will know why. If you don’t, see it next time round and you’ll understand why.
A lightly-contested award this time round, there wasn’t much in the heart-wrenching category for me this year. But I think I can give this to Ana Bayat for Mimi’s Suitcase. There was a delicate combination that contributed this play: the naivety of Ana’s younger self, used to carefree life in Spain, suddenly thrown into world of increasing oppression that she doesn’t understand; and with this, an understanding of the desparation that people like her felt to go back to somewhere where she can be free again. Plenty of plays are good at being harrowing, but fewer bring in the empathy or humanity of the situations. This stuck with me, and this it deserves recognition.
Most effective staging
This award is not just for set design, but everything that goes into the appearance of a play, such as sound, lighting, props, music, and more. I second place, we’re going back to February for Ventoux, with two bicycles on stage in the nail-biting race between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantini. This could easily have been done badly – projecting a background on to a wall rarely looks convincing and had 2Magpies attempted to stage the entire play as a naturalistic race that would have been a mistake. Instead, they use every trick in the book the stage the various races in a variety of naturalistic and representational formats, and whilst this description might sound boring and technical, of stage on the play it was one of the striking and memorable views I’ve seen.
But there’s no beating the 2017 winner, Scorched. Wow. There is one caveat to this award, which is that this play only works to its full extent is a venue where you can see the floor. Why? Because of all the sand. The story of the writer’s own grandfather reliving his days fighting World War 2 in North Africa, for six years the desert was all he knew. It’s not just the sand used for staging effect, but a lot of them were. And some of the projections were things I didn’t even know you could do on stage, such an animated tattoo on his arm and the moving image through a sheet of falling sand. It’s an ongoing battle to convince punters that impressive special effects only exist in the most expensive theatres with the most extravagent budgets, so we need plays like Scorched to show how much more you can get with some creativity.
Best individual performance
This is a difficult one to keep track of, because I see numerous performances in numerous plays over the year that impress me, so to make it easy for me to pick a winner, I’ve decided to concentrate on those performances that stuck in my mind the most. One might think this could give an unfair advantage to plays I’ve seen recently, but as it happens, first and second place both go to plays from the first third of the year.
In second place it’s Ventoux again, with Alexander Gatehouse as Lance Armstrong. This award is always a bit of pot luck for actors as they can only be as good as the part that has been written, but there was a great part written in this play that portrays Lance Armstrong as a victim of his own worst enemy: himself. When he was revered as both a champion sportsman and champion of cancer survivors, a deadly combination of arrogance and complacency grows into a mistaken belief he’s untouchable. A lot of the lines are Lance Armstrong’s real speeches – the way they are delivered here, his claim that doping is rife in cycling makes Armstrong sound guilty as hell.
But winning the category by a convincing margin is Jessica Johnson as Rita in the Gala Theate’s in-house production of Educating Rita. This is very much a safe bet for a theatre; such is the strength of Willy Russel’s script that you can get a great production out of two reasonably competent actors, but Jessica Johnson far surpassed what she needed to do and made the play so much better for it. She got every nuance of every line, and all the changes in Rita – from short-term mood swings to long-term changes in confidence – came across perfectly. It’s about time Jessica Johnson won this, because she’s been great in every part of every play I’ve seen her in, but this one really highlights what she can do, because I knew what to expect in this play and got far more than I bargained for. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said this part had been written for her.
Best solo play
New category now. At festival fringes I see gazillions of solo plays, in heavy competition with each other, so in order to give them a fair chance to stand out, here’s a dedicated award. (I didn’t count Cockroached for this award as I decided the CB radio counted as a second character.)
In second place, I’ve gone for Replay. Produced and supported under the name of Dugout Theatre but very much the creation of writer/performer Nicola Wren, it’s the story of a Police Officer still struggling to come to terms with the death of her brother, years ago. There is a lovely sequence in the middle of her ten-year-old self telling the story of going to see her beloved grown-up brother in London, where little things like a ride at the Trocadero means so much when it’s with someone you idolise. There is no breakthrough moment of closure, just painful memories that come and go, and added together the script and performance give us a strong all-rounder
But after giving this a lot of thought, I’ve decided to make the winner Richard Carpenter is Close to You. When I originally review this, I did express some reservations about the confusing timeline of the story, but, on reflection, this it more than outweighed by all the good things going for it. Playing Richard Carpenter after Karen’s death, Matthew Floyd Jones’s play works on so many levels. As well as playing many of their greatest its (such as “Stormy Days and Thursdays” for reason of copyright), this says a lot about the gutter press, greedy exploitation of celebrity tragedies and our habit of revering the achievements of the few but ignoring the talents of the many who got them there. And from start to finish, the play is very, very funny.
The “Well I liked it” award
This award is for a play that I feel deserved better than they got from the reviews and/or ticket sales. This year, the play I’m picking is Claustrophilia, a play about Alice who spent years kidnapped. This only had a mixed critical reception, and oddly enough, I broadly agree with most of the criticisms: there were discrepancies in the plot the needed explaining, in particular, what happened to Alice’s parents who were prominent is the story before the kidnapping but absent afterwards. However, I thought the strengths of the play outweighed the weaknesses – I really liked the theme of the ghoulish media obsession over a kidnapping where nothing much happened, as well as Alice’s reluctance to escape because she’s too used to living in one room. I understand the script is in development, and if that is so, I hope they keep at this. The problems picked up by the critics can be fixed – do that, and this could still go far.
Unexpected gem of the year
It’s a rare treat, but one of the nicest experiences of seeing nearly 100 plays a year is watching something with no expectations and being amazed by what they did.
This year, I can think of no finer example than a play I saw in London whilst the Vault festival was on: Three Unrelated Short Plays. Yes, that really is what it’s called. This title, combined with a mid-week run, led me expect nothing more than some beginners trying out their hand at writing. And what do you know, this was surprisingly good. Contrary to what the title suggested, all three plays shared a common theme of comedies that start off moderately silly, and get progressively more absurd over the next half-hour. Highlights included a 16-year TOWIE-loving diety, superheroes Tape Man and Assorted Props Girl, and lots of jokes that only work in low-budget productions. Often, calling a comedy “absurd” is an excuse for bad writing where characterisation is arbitrarily changed to meet the requirements of the next joke, but I think the difference here, the thing that made this work, is that, yes, the characters were ridiculous, but they were consistently ridiculous. There were some weak spots in the scripts, but that’s okay, because they’ve had a chance to see for themselves what worked and what didn’t, and hopefully they will build on this and improve it. The Vault festival might dominate the awards going to London-based plays, but this is an important reminder that there’s more to London Fringe than the Vault.
This award can be for anything. It can be recognition for something not covered by the other awards, or it can be to the runner-up of another award that deserves to win something.
In second place this year, this award goes to Incubator Theatre for The City. I liked the play, but the reason they get the award is for defying the censors. This was forced out of the Edinburgh Fringe three years ago through mob censorship. This year, they returned better prepared and the mob failed. If you think this has nothing to do with you, you’re wrong. Incubator Theatre were not targeted for what they said or what they did but simply guilt by association over something they had no control over. If that’s now grounds for censorship and any amount of threats or intimidation is acceptable, no-one is safe. The only thing that stops these bullies is failure. If they don’t get their way, they’ll stop trying. You should be thankful before you find yourself on the receiving end.
In first place, however, a rare award for a play I didn’t see. This is in fact in recognition of a lot of plays in 2017, because this is the year I have seen a lot more inclusion of actors with visible disabilities in professional plays. I’m all in favour of inclusion, but disabilities always seems to me the impossible one to crack, because I didn’t see how you could do this without it looking either like 1) casting a disabled actor for the sake of it, or 2) tired tropes such as “little people are surreal”. Well, I’m happy to say I’ve been proven wrong, because this year I saw many plays that included disabled actors, and – crucially – it was always made to look like that’s how the play was meant to be done all along.
I have a long-standing policy not to comment on inclusion when reviewing a play – it is difficult to do that without making the review sound like it’s about an actor’s race or disability rather than the play itself. I don’t think that’s fair on the actors concerned. However, I made an exception for Richard III by Northern Broadsides because they chose to announced this loud and proud, as did Mat Fraser who played everyone’s favourite Shakesperian baddie. When you think about it, it’s such a no-brainer it’s a wonder no-one thought of this before. We shouldn’t assume this is a universal solution for everyone – other people might not be comfortable playing this role – but this year I’ve seen so many different ways that actors with disabilities have been successfully included in professional productions (Cyrano de Bergerac, Queens of the North, Goth Weekend plus Gods are Fallen and All Safety Gone from last year). So Northern Broadsides can claim the award on behalf of everyone for a small but very important step in the right direction.
This is another new award, not for a play, but for the best behaviour of a theatre company supporting theatre as a whole. In the inaugural year, I’m giving this to Superbolt during their run of Mars Actually at the Vault Festival. For a start, it’s for bringing doughnuts round to all the venue staff at vault for the end of their run. It’s always a good idea to be nice to venue staff at festivals, but to go the extra mile – especially when you’re lucky enough that the venue needs you more than you need them – put them in my good books. But the thing which I really approved of was the lengths they went to recommend other acts at the Vault. Superbolt isn’t the only company to do these things, but they’re done this more than any other company I’ve seen.
Other companies: if you want to win this next year, being nice to venue staff and recommending other groups will count in your favour.
The “what the fuck?” award
No contest. Cicada Studios wins hand down with Blood and Bone for their graphic sex scene between puppet plants. It involved naive ash tree Ash, and rose bush Rose, the kind of hussy who’s probably riddled with aphids, and that’s about as much detail as I’m prepared to go into. If you’re still wondering how a sex scene works between a puppet ash tree and a puppet rose bush, trust me, you don’t want to know. This award was closed in February, on the grounds that I cannot possibly see anything more “what the fuck?” than that. And the scene was also very funny. Just watch at your own risk.
Disappointment of the Year
This is a kind-of booby prize. It’s not for the worst play I saw (oh boy, I saw much worse), but it is for a play that fell short from a company who I expected to know better. This one I’ve written with more regret than any disappointments from previous years. The disappointment is Dr. Frankenstein co-produced by Greyscale and Northern Stage.
There are good things to say about the play. I loved the set that was used for the play. Greyscale has my respect for including actors with disabilities, including this play. But the adaptation mangled Mary Shelley’s novel into something unrecognisable. To be clear, the one thing I did not have a problem with was making Victor Frankenstein into Victoria Frankenstein – that could have worked, although I can think of other stories where this would have worked better. It’s all the other changes I had a problem with. The adaptation obliterated everything that defined the book as a masterpiece. Victor’s isolation is replaced with Victoria casually discussing her project to bring the dead back to life with her friend Henry. Out goes an unloved creature driven to terrible acts on vengeance, and in comes a creature who was trying to save the kid, not kill him. The moral of the story to not meddle with forces you can’t control is nowhere to be seen. I gather the adaptation was meant to introduce a message about how we perceive the other in the age of Brexit and Trump – but I’ve no idea what that message was.
All of those mistakes are forgivable. People take gambles, and sometimes gambles don’t work out. What is less forgivable is putting a new message into a play and removing the message of the original woman writer – in a season that was supposed to be a platform for women’s voices. If you’re going on a mission to have more voices of women in literature, you can start by not erasing the voices of the women in literature we already have.
Best low-budget/fringe production
And here we come. We’re on to the two biggies. With four festivals’ worth of plays to choose from, this is one of the most heavily-contested categories, with an exceptional standard needed to get into the top three.
In third place, it’s Speak Up, Act Out with Between You and Me. This is different from normal plays because this is “forum theatre”, where a situation is acted out on stage and then the audience discuss what could have been done better. This is a theatre blog and not a social change blog, so I can only consider the play, but that was exceptional. Based on the real stories of male victims of sexual violence, this was a fictitious story of a man unable to feel he can get help, simply because the possibility that something like this could happen to a man doesn’t cross anybody’s mind. Most disturbingly, the one person who knew what happened – his own mother – blamed him for what happened even though the was nine at the time. It’s bleak, it’s horrifying, but it’s long overdue that somebody said this.
In second place, it’s Cockroached. This is the last play I’d expect to be talking about here. One of the most over-used tropes throughout film, television and theatre is the zombie apocalypse. There’s nothing wrong with the format as such, just that it’s impossible to come up with a new angle on this story which hasn’t already been done to death – or so I thought. Against the odds, Theatre 63 have managed to come up with something different: a survivor called Taylor who only gets to speak with an unknown voice on a BC radio. What follows over the next hour is a mind game where there can only be one winner. With the play enhanced by some superb atmospheric music written for it, Theatre 63 achieved the impossible and came up with something original out of the last setting you’d think could be original any more.
But in terms of considering all-round strengths, one fringe play dominates the entire year. It’s already won the award for best north-east fringe, but it goes on to win best fringe production overall. Plenty of groups can come up with creative staging, or devise innovative stories, or play their own music live on stage, but few can do all three. But The Letter Room can, at that has paid off here. Five Feet in Front was impressive to year ago, so No Miracles Here deserves to be overall winner this time round.
So, here it is. We’re doing to the final three. The big ones.
In third place for best production is …
Leaving from Curious Monkey. When it comes to best productions, I look for strong performance over a range of areas, and in the case of Leaving, it’s the combination of Paddy Campbell’s excellent writing and insight to what he knows so well, combined with Any Golding’s innovative directing to enhance the play beyond straight verbatim recitals. This low-key performance in Northern Stage whilst all attention focused on its bigger stage 1 venture beats off all of the competition from higher-profile profile productions trumpeted by the local theatres, and with Leaving due to tour next year, we could well still be hearing about this play long after its higher-profile competitors have been forgotten.
In second place …
It was a close call between first and second place. The Letter Room takes second place with No Miracles Here. The multitude of talents that earned them best fringe production counts heavily in their favour here. However, this play is at its strongest on the fringe circuit. If the wider theatre scene, this kind of play is a bit more of a niche market. But it still squares up very strongly with the winner, and in terms of originality and musicality, it scores better. It’s a narrow miss from pole position, but it could easily have been winner and is highly worthy for the silver.
And we go. The 2017 winner of best production:
It’s Northern Broadsides, of the McAndrew/Nelson flavour, with Cyrano de Bergerac. As I said, very close between this and No Miracles Here. I picked Cryano as the winner because whilst The Letter Room were ahead on originality and risk-taking, for Best Production it’s important for wider audience appeal to come into play, and this is where Cyrano is ahead. But it hasn’t just won as a crowd-pleaser, there’s a lot going for it. Clearly accessible to new viewers yet faithful to the story, innovative with being clever for the sake of it, and rejecting the sterotypes of previous production that Cyrano must be a middle-aged man; all this, combined with the multitude of talents we are used to from Northern Broadsides pushes it past the winning post.
And it’s a first for this blog. Northern Broadsides becomes the first group to win Best Production a second time, both times with Deborah McAndrew writing and Conrad Nelson directing. But it’s the least surprising group to achieve this, because with every adaptation being to such a high standard they’ve been strong contenders every time.
So congratulation to Northern Broadsides and all the other winners. Apologies to many groups who didn’t get a mention – even with this number of awards, there’s always some excellent plays that don’t make it on to the last. Now the race for 2018 awards begins, and who know what to expect a year from now?