Chris Neville-Smith’s 2019 awards

Here we are at the end of the year, with what is probably my most interesting post of the year. There will other review of the year posts coming from other people, but even from the most enthusiastic reviewers who praise everything, this is where it comes to a crunch: you can say everything’s great, but you can’t say everything’s the greatest. You’ve got to pick one over the others. Even in this blog, pickier than most for who gets the best reviews, I have to get choosy here. There’s a long list of plays in my pick of the fringe over three fringes, and a good number of equally good plays from elsewhere, but even with a long list of categories, there aren’t enough to go round. So it’s been a tough choice of what to include – but some of the most important choices were easy.

At some point, I really ought to write up these rules. New rules have been introduced over the years in order to keep things fair, give small acts a fair chance against the big ones, and avoid the same acts coming up year after year, but all of this needs to go into one play, Maybe next year. In the meantime, however, one important clarification of an existing rule: The restrictions on conflict of interest are relaxed a bit compared to reviews. People who I’m friends with or who I previously worked with (who I wouldn’t be comfortable reviewing) can win these awards. However, people who I’m currently getting money or opportunities from are still off-limits, including productions of theirs that I wasn’t involved in.

One other caveat before I start: this has not been a typical year for me outside of theatre. I’ve written about this enough times, but you can find the details at the bottom of this post. I was in a better state some times of the year than others – as far as I can tell, this doesn’t affect my choices, but who knows? What this does mean, however, is that I didn’t get round to seeing some plays that would normally have been on my “must see” list. For anyone who’s out of the running for this reason, my apologies. Maybe next year.

So let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to get through between now and New Year’s Day when I announce the winner of best production. The envelope, please …

Best new writing:

As always, awards open with Best New Writing. The best plays are usually the combination of both script and production, but this one considers script alone. In general, another competent theatre company should be able to pick up the script and do just as good a job. In second place, this goes to The Red. Marcus Brigstocke’s play inspired by his own battle with alcohol was very well written, gave food for thought on many matters directly and indirectly related to the theme of the play, and closes with a very clever “blink and you’ll miss it” ending. There are been a fair number of disappointments in recent Edinburgh Fringes from big names turning their hand to theatre – this one will restore your faith.

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The script in first place, however, wins from an unexpected angle. Live Theatre has made a big thing of a diverse programme, and their co-production with Tamasha Theatre, Approaching Empty was a headliner. Tamasha are, of course, most famous for East is East, but the thing that struck me here was that whilst East is East was about an British Asian family where things are different, in Approaching Empty things are very much the same. That’s not what clinches the top spot though – instead, it’s Ishy Din’s excellent script of the tale of fall of innocence, where good intentions lead to a terrible outcome. It’s a struggling taxi firm run by two men and their families, one seeking to buy the business from the other – but camaraderie mixes with white lies, and white lies mix with self interest. And the way it’s done is very believable. Ishy Din has also earned my respect this year with some of the best playwriting advice I’ve heard, dispelling the myth of the life-changing moment and telling some truths of the unseen hard work that lies behind the so-called breakthrough scripts. The universality of this play is a bonus, but a welcome bonus: in a tale where people who trust each other are left with no choice but to betray each other, that truly is a story that could be anybody’s.

Best north-east low-budget/fringe/amateur production

For the first time this year, I’m doing two regional awards: the existing one for the best low-budget local production (started in response to the appearance of Alphabetti Theatre) and another for a local production of any kind. “North-east” means a play that originated in the north-east – simply touring to the north-east doesn’t count; conversely, a north-east play seen at a festival fringe remains eligible. There’s a bit more ambiguity over what “low-budget” means, but in general I want this to be for small-scale productions that don’t have the backing of Live Theatre or Northern Stage. I thought The Hound of the Baskervilles was a strong all-rounder, with a small cast and modest resources, but with this being one of Northern Stage’s flagship productions I decided this one doesn’t count.

So in second place I’m putting in Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers. This was one of Alphabetti Theatre’s earliest hits and the revival at the start of this year was one of the best-sellers. Although I didn’t quite share the enthusiasm of the people who raved about this the most, it was a good production that deserved this revival. Two misfits meet on Newcastle High Level Bridge: “Sausage Fingers”, who was gradually ostracised by friends, workplace and eventually, his own family; and “Bacon Knees” who has mental health problems and is blithely oblivious to the cruel manipulative world around him. The pivotal chance meeting of the two outsiders earns Steve Byron and Gary Kitching the second spot.
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But pole position comes to the winner I wasn’t expecting. It’s Coracle Arts with Down to Zero. This play, I feel, was somewhat undersold. Like Approaching Empty, this was heavily promoted as part of a diverse programme – in this case representation of older women – but what made this is a good play isn’t the demographic of the lead character, but some cleverly-balance writing from Lizi Patch of a relationship that may or may not become an abusive one. On a weekend break things are hanging in the balance, but it’s never certain whether things will get better, the relationship will break down, or things will start to get much much worse. And my favourite twist: the ending is the opposite to most plays. Usually, things are wound up and you know how things will turn out. This time, just when you think you know how this will end – it’s all thrown out into the open again. It’s a shame Coracle didn’t make more of strong writing that supports this play, but I’m glad I gave this a chance because it takes the title of best north-east fringe.

Most promising debut

For this next category, I’m not so much interested in what I saw but what could follow. It might be a rework of the same play, or it might be high hopes for ones to come. If you get this one, you are in good company: two previous winners in particular, Alice Mary Cooper and Yve Blake, went on to great things. However, a reminder on what I count as a “debut”: it has to be an artist/group who is new to the environment where they performed. I really liked RedBellyBlack’s Tacenda at the Vault Festival – their devised theatre has huge potential – but as they performed OK, Bye the year before also as the Vault Festival, I can’t count that as a debut. So this time round, I’ve picked two performances that, as far as I know, as new to the Edinburgh Fringe (and if you have been before, I recommend you keep quiet and take the award).

In second place: this was only a footnote in my Edinburgh coverage, but this one stuck in my mind long after the fringe was packed away: Life Between Yes and No from Kahlo Theatre. This play had flaws, like a lot of fringe first-timers do, but the central theme was really promising was the life of a DWP phone operator, handling calls from claimants in various states of desperation, in the knowledge that there’s usually nothing you can do except pass the details on. For one of the most contentious subjects in both theatre and politics, this brought an unexpected new angle of the human side of the people in the middle.

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But the play I’m most excited for is Rich Bitch: How to make money with the power of your mind. This is a presentation from Casha Bling (also know as Cristina Lark), a Facebook richness guru who can guarantee you will definitely make loads of money – the only way you can possibly fail is by not believing in getting rich enough. Or not paying Casha Bling enough upfront fees. The performance is still in development, and it could do with a bit more to sustain interest in the middle, but the themes alluded to in the play have so much potential: how these kinds of scams work; the ruthless way they prey on low self-esteem; the hypocrisy of people who big up their worldly awareness but treat the rest of the world as a glorified holiday resort for themselves; and – most promising of all – the growing desperation of Casha Bling as she’s running out of suckers and running out of money. I hope I get to see this again in its next form, because this has so much offer if it plays to its strengths.

Most persuasive play

This is a new award that’s the closest I can get to recognising political theatre. The big problem with most people who recognise political theatre is that 90% it amounts to little more than a seal of approval for the writer expressing an opinion that the judges/reviewers already held. A better practice is to judge how well the case was made, whether or not you agree with it, but that’s very difficult to separate from your own politics. So this category is for who makes the best case for something I didn’t already support. Top marks for anyone who can change my mind in a play, but that is very rare. Failing that, the next best thing is to win me over on an issue I hadn’t given much thought to.

So in second place, it’s Testament of Yootha. Caroline Burns Cooke’s solo play was a good all-rounder, but the thing that gets my attention here is a side-issue to the main theme, and that is the treatment of women not considered conventionally attractive. There’s plenty of horror stories about typecasting of young hot women (and worse), but if this play is right, in the 1960s there was a parallel typecasting going of young not-so-hot women as girl upstairs, tarts, sluts, and other women on ill repute. Until you were allowed tits out in films – after which those parts went to the hot women too. The moral of the story, it seems, is that casting directors – especially those for film and TV – are very shallow people.

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But in first place, it’s Anna Jordan with Freak, shown to me thanks to Ratchet Theatre. This is something I first saw Anna Jordan hint at in Yen, but here it is the central theme: a pretty damning indictment of the popular culture surrounding sex, particularly peer pressure and advice on the internet. Leah wants to have sex for the first time because anyone who doesn’t is a loser, when she’d be far better off getting some advice that would enable her to spot her controlling boyfriend for what he is. Georgie, on the other hand, gets over a relationship breakdown by getting job as a stripper and partaking in an orgy with an entire stag party – she’s convinced herself it’s her choice, but it’s so obviously a product of poor self-esteem and media that only values her by how much she’s desired. And the play says a lot more besides. Freak doesn’t try to suggest a solution to all of this – goodness knows where you’d start with that – but it makes you think a lot over what’s wrong with things as they are, and that’s the first step to putting things right. I’m becoming an Anna Jordan fan, because she takes on a cause too few people think about and makes her points very well.

Best adaptation

And we come to the second of the major awards. Once again, it’s been a year with a lot of strong contenders, with four adaptations I’d have been quite happy to name as the winner. It was quite a close-run choice for second place, and I seriously considered Toast and Noughts and Crosses, but edging ahead of them I went for A Thousand Splendid Suns. All of these were fine adaptations that did justice to their original stories, but it’s the co-production of Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep made you think the most. Few people would dispute that the Taleban’s attitude to women was bad, but what this play showed very well was how these kind of attitudes pre-dated the Taleban. When liberally-minded Laila loses her family to a stray shell bombing Kabul, she is taken in by the neighbours, but what first appears to be an act of kindness becomes a nightmare when Rasheed takes her for his second wife. She and first wife Mariam swiftly forget their differences and an alliance of necessity grows into a true friendship. It’s Rasheed, however, who embodies the setting of the play the most. It may have been the Taleban who were the worst state in history for its treatment of women, but Ursula Rani Sarma’s script shows how people like Rasheed that made it possible.

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However, the winner of Best Adaptation was unbeatable. And also something I’d never ever have guessed would be such a hit. It’s Pants on Fire’s unique take on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – unique because this is a transplant of the Roman legends to a World War 2 music hall. It takes about 10 minutes to acclimatise yourself to this format, but there is one over-arching rule: the text remains the same, but everything surrounding it can change. The chorus is now the Andrews Sisters, Cupid and his bow is now a puppet naughty schoolboy and his catapult, Airadne sings a heartbreaking You’ve Changed after being abandoned by Theseus, Hermaphoroditus’s story moves from a pool in in wood of Caria to a London Lido, and Tiresias’s prophecies of war and destruction now take place to a backdrop of nuclear war. One reason such a risky concept pays off so well is the staging, mixing set with projections, pulling every trick in book. The other thing that works so well is the musical score, sometimes wartime classics, sometimes incidental music. Both of these are executed superbly, with cast switching instruments and forever moving set around. Peter Bramley’s adaptation is one of the boldest gambles I have ever seen taken on stage, but it worked remarkably well. The only snag is that the Edinburgh Fringe run has come and gone and the Vault Festival appearance was the encore. Here’s to hoping there’s an encore to the encore.

Play that deserved better

Originally known as the “Well I liked it” award, this is for a piece that I think got less than it deserved in terms of audience, or critical reception, or both. In second place, it’s Princess Party, a character comedy set at a disastrous birthday party where two women turn up to children dressed as Disney Princesses – only they didn’t realise it’s a Frozen-themed party and they’ve come as Snow White and Alice. And one of them has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend. And the other one found some cocaine in the Uber on the way. Obviously I can only talk about the performance I saw, but I can’t understand why there wasn’t a bigger audience, because this was perfect for an 11 p.m. slot. Some of the character comedy in the middle was weaker than the princess bits, but I loved the contrast between the two jobbing actors making ends meet and the obscenely rich family in their Beverly Hills mansion. If nothing else, if you are one of the countless actors who’s done children’s birthday parties, or know anyone who has, this should strike a chord.

However, the play that I think was really done a disservice, this time by the reviews, is Blue Devil Theatre’s I Am A Camera. According to some reviews, the German accents weren’t very good. I am hopeless at accents so I have no idea what a German one is supposed to sound like, but even if that criticism is correct – why is that such an issue? Surely there are far more important things to judge a play on that that. And in the case of Christopher Isherwood’s predecessor to Cabaret that is based on a witness account of the rise on the Nazis in 1930s Germany, that might be a good place to start. One of the most powerful statements for the play was how more of an anti-Semite Fraulein Schneider is – because the Nazis didn’t come to power on the beliefs of a mob of fanatics, but only when ordinary people started getting on board too. Blue Devil Theatre have a strong following and their other two recent productions have got more than enough glowing reviews to go round, so this isn’t going to do any harm. But it’s a play that makes such a profound statement of how the Nazis’ idea spread and we’re having a debate on whether the accents are comparable to ‘Allo ‘Allo? Perspective, please.

For once, I don’t have an obvious candidate for my secret category of “Play that deserved less” (or the “How the hell did that get five stars” award?), but I’ll probably think of one soon. If you want to know what it is, I accept bribes.

Sporting behaviour award

We now paused the awards for plays and instead turn attention to the behaviour of artists, theatre companies, and the rest of the arts industry. This recognises good behaviour, where someone behaves beyond the usual standard of expected behaviour in a way that helps out people other than themselves. In second place, it’s Greater Manchester Fringe for keeping their dignity when the furore over Manchester International Festival (and spending a bajillion squillion pounds on live-streaming of Yoko Ono ringing a bell). You can read more about my thoughts on the “mass participation” events favoured by festivals such as MIF here, but I’m not that interested in joining in the kicking of this festival, and instead want to encourage the alternative, and GM Fringe rejects the hierarchical structure of most arts festival and is one of the best, most open, and most welcoming platforms for local talent. GM Fringe earned my respect last year when they encouraged people to see acts they’d never heard of in venues they’d never been to. It’s a pity this attitude that everyone deserves a chance doesn’t extend to this region.

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In first place, however, it’s something I’ve never talked about before. The Sporting Behaviour Award goes to The Stand, Newcastle, for going against the grain of celebrity-headlined pantomimes with Cinderella and the Beanstalk. I try not to comment on pantomimes too much as I have little interest in this, but I accept that most theatres need this to make money, and big celebrity names draw in more people and more money, but still, all this focus on celebrities comes at the expense of the local talent – who in most cases can do just a good a job, if not better. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that when The Stand decided to do their own pantomime, they not only took on local actors, but they gave as much prominence to their names on the publicity as other theatres give to the celebrity names. This matters. A small venue that’s embarrassed it can’t afford bigger names might have done its best to gloss over this fact, but The Stand was open and proud about this, doing their best to make the names of the actors a draw in their own right. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see this, but the one name I do recognise, Hannah Walker, will be hilarious in the lead role. It’s going to take more than one production to persuade people that there’s more to panto than which soap star is in it, but this is a start.

Unsporting behaviour award

And one the other side of the coin, a look at some of the worst behaviour in 2019. Normally, I like to concentrate on the big names who should know better – however, in second place it’s The Mumble, a not terribly important website (and almost certain less important than the editor thinks it is), so normally I would let the bad behaviour go, but this was so reprehensible I can’t overlook it. They have, of course, scooped this dubious honour for their attempt at introducing the notorious “pay-for-praise” reviews to Edinburgh. They are not the first people to try this – edfringereviews.com tried to pull this stunt a few years ago, but they not nowhere. The Mumble, on the other hand, has some superficial credibility and they tried very hard to convince people that paying for reviews is a perfectly normal practice. Anybody who knows anything about the fringe knows this is bollocks, but there are a lot of naive acts out there who might hand over the money and only discover they’ve wasted their money when they are laughed out of every venue that sees their four-star Mumble review. And don’t get me started on their wanky-pretentious language of “Professional Cultural Surveyors”. (And don’t get me started on the other allegations.) The only good news is that they didn’t seem to find that many suckers in the end, but honestly, steer clear. And tell anyone who might fall for their pitch to steer cleer too.

The worst offender for Unsporting Behviour hasn’t behaved quite so badly – but I’m still giving them the top spot because they are a far more respected publication where I expect far better. For the second year running, it’s The Scotsman for refusing to listen to any criticisms from the last to years and doubling down with more of the same – and, worse, doubling down with attacks on competitors. I’ve already written about The Scotsman at length here and here, but the summary of events is as follows: The Scotsman went into this fringe with the reputation sullied after Kate Copstick’s bizarre passive-aggressive attack on comedians who won’t give her press tickets for previews, as if she has the right to snap her fingers and get what she wants when she wants. The sensible course of action would be to apologise and move on – or if an apology is too much, drop it quietly and move on. Instead, she wrote yet another article masquerading as tips for performers where she continued to chastise comedians with the temerity to not do her every bidding. And just when I thought this paper’s dignity couldn’t sink any lower, their sister paper published and equally bizarre column attacking “pop-up reviewers”, which appears to be a loose term for theatre bloggers like me but seems to extend to anyone who isn’t a Scotsman reviewer. And as criticism of the single-paragraph one-star reviewer mounts, this column double down on defending it because everyone wants a good entertaining read, apparently. The Scotsman should count itself very lucky the Big Four venues stepped in to rescue their coverage this year. If it had been me, my patient has long since run out.

Best collaborative work

And we move on to the third major one. If Best New Writing is for the best story on the strength of the script writer, this is for the best story on the strength of the company as a whole. This time, I considered The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, as this is the year it clearly made the transition from a one-man operation to a team effort, but in the end I chose to stick to devised plays developed by the whole company.

In second place, it’s Tacenda from RedBellyBlack. I wanted to recognise RedBellyBlack for something, and it was a pity I couldn’t count them as a promising debut, but in the end when I totted up which plays were in the running for collaborative work, this comes ahead of all but one by a convincing margin. Tacenda was a decent story – two women who live the same day over and over again until they get things, and it’s a delicate day won or lost by which battles you do and don’t pick. But where it really shines is in the slickness of the stagecraft. Most devised plays I’ve seen – even those whose storylines don’t work out – do well when they take to the stage, but RedBellyBlack were exceptional, making good use of every theatrical device, keeping the dialogue swift and to the point, and making very good calls on what risks to take; and because of this, they produce a play that’s original, easy to follow, and never looks like a paint-by-numbers formula that so many devised pieces fall foul of. They may not be eligible for the “debut” part of most promising, but I have no reservations about the promise these three show.

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There was only one choice for the winner, however, and that’s Be More Martyn, an extraordinary tribute to Martyn Hett, one of the victims of the Manchester bombing of 2017. It’s verbatim theatre from eight of Martyn’s closest friends, but it’s like no other verbatim piece I’ve seen – rather than mourning a death, it’s a celebration of a life. The phrase “It’s what Martyn would have wanted” might sound cheesy, but honestly, I can’t think of a better way to describe this. And not just the manner in which he’s spoken of, but what he stood for. Martyn was described in the aftermath as a champion of LGBT rights, but this play is more precise: not a champion in the sense of taking part in every demo, but more by not giving a damn what anyone thought of him – and, in turn, encouraging his friends to be themselves and not give a damn what people thought of them. Even the moment of his death is handled cleverly, with the aftermath being more about the tributes that came in than the loss suffered. Obviously I’d prefer it if we had no cause to write this play, but as far as collaborative work goes, it’s a great job by the team that devised the play, – but in this case, the collaboration extends to those who gave their stories for the play. I’d heard a lot of good things about this play in advance of seeing it, and for one it wildly exceeded my expectations.

Funniest moment

A disclaimer before I start, similar to the disclaimer they should have for all these “Top 10 one-liners” they have at the Edinburgh Fringe – funny moments almost always work best within the setting they were told in. It’s near-impossible to reproduce the effect when talking about it later. Anyway, I nearly gave this to Alan Ayckbourn for the end of the first scene in Birthdays Present, Birthdays Past, when Martin’s elderly father warns his nice Christian fiancee about his (completely misunderstood, obvs) reputation as a sex maniac. I won’t spoil it by saying what happened (you can look it up on the offical Alan Ayckbourn page if you want), but that was hilarious.

However, after giving this a lot of thought, I’ve allowed something else to edge ahead. I’d prefer to give this to a funny moment in theatre rather than comedy, but this was too funny to let go. It’s the moment from Shit Scripts: Bad Manors were- … actually, this takes a bit of explaining. Annie Harris produced a play of a terrible script written by a once-boyfriend for an English assignment when he was 15, complete with an incomprehensible plot and impossible stage directions. So, of course, when there are two men naked to the waist, she asks for clarification is it’s top half or bottom half, and of course the audience shout out “bottom half”, and that’s all I need to tell you because I’m employing a very expensive therapist to bury this memory. Luckily, I can’t find a photo of that moment, so instead enjoy a picture of an equally baffling car scene.

Tearjerker moment

This one is a late entry, but it goes to Alphabetti Theatre for Present. This was a play from Ali Pritchard, once again with homelessness as a central theme. To be honest, I nearly gave up on this play – until the last 15 minutes, I couldn’t work out where this story was going other than what looked like a gloomfest. The ending, however, was wonderful. This play was a partnership with Crisis, and the central theme this play was heading to was the Crisis Christmas dinner. I loved the moment where the tramp who’d given up on everything on Christmas Eve and drank himself to stupor confronted a stranger on Christmas morning, only for it to not be someone treating him with pity or disgust but someone telling him about where he can spend Christmas. It’s a bit of a shame this was squeezed into such a brief episode at the end – I’d have liked to see a lot more of that – but this earns the spot of tearjerker moment.

Most effective staging

Annual reminder that when I say “most effective staging”, lavish does not necessarily mean effective. What I’m interested in here is not which play achieved the highest budget and production value, but which plays’ staging offered the most for scale of the play it was meant for. At that is the reason that the runner-up secures its spot here. It goes to Fourth Wall Theatre, with Beats. Although Beats is an existing play, director Hetty Hodgson had a new vision, with the main attraction being the projections on the wall of Wiff Waff bar in Durham – something that I thought wasn’t possible without super-expensive super-specialised equipment. Hetty has now gone to London, so far all my London followers, keep an eye out for her because everything she’s done has impressed me.

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There was only ever one contender for the title though: Ovid’s Metamorphoses once again. One of the reasons with was such a gamble was that the 1940s theme would never have worked without the right set, and that in turn has to work for numerous different tales. And it never ceased to impress me all the ways Pants on Fire achieved this starting with a set of flats. Black on one side, white on the other, moving to every possible location, sometimes projected on, sometimes displaying iconic wartime London imagery that instantly connects with the story, it has to be seen to be believed. And this was all done by the cast, with a set movement plot so complicated that one false move would have upset everything. This was an excellent concept with or without the staging, but the set was the icing on the cake.

Best classic/revival/long-running play

This was a close-run thing between the top two and even though they got my attention for completely different reasons, I had trouble deciding between the two. After changing my mind several times, in second place it’s Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table, which, by accident or by design, has become the perfect political satire for 2019. It’s a tale of a political dispute that blows out of all proportion over a matter as trivial as town pageant, complete with warring factions so blinded by conflict they can’t see how petty the matter is to everyone else. This is a Bill Kenwright production not affilaited with any particular theatre, but with Robin Herford – for a long time Alan Ayckbourn’s deputy – directing this play, The Stephen Joseph Theatre can almost claim it as one of theirs.

But narrowly ahead in first place, this is borderline between classic play and adaptation, but I was really impressed with Rory Stuart’s version of A Doll’s House that he produced for Hangfire Theatre. The original version of Ibsen’s play, classic though it is, is a long wordy affair that requires a lot of characters. Rory Stuart managed to condense this into one hour and four characters played by three actors, and still managed to capture very effectively all that matters in the play: a woman in an unhappy marriage at a time when everyone was expected to pretend things were perfect, and a make-or-break moment that causes the truth to dawn on Nora. Hangfire Theatre have a lot going for this format of pared-down classics, but they set themselves a hard act to beat with that one.

Most memorable line

A new category now, and this one’s a bit of a novelty, but it’s for a single line of a play that I kept thinking about long afterwards. And this goes to – indeed, this was the reason I was inspired to create the category in the first place – Bonnie and the Bonnettes for their response piece to Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, set with three people out on the roof of a gay nightclub. And the winning line (apologies for any paraphrasing from me) is a lovely one from one of the women who lives with her gran, who she said keeps asking “Whatever happened to that nice girl who once had breakfast with us?” In one line, we get a whole new character of a lady who’s probably worked out her granddaughter likes other women, has never brought it up, but still wants her to be settled and happy. This might have been a one-off which may never be seen again, but it will stay in my memory for a long time.

Unexpected gem of the year

Ovid’s Metamorphoses almost wins a third category here, but in the end gets second place. But it deserves recognition here for the bold gamble it took. I will admit myself that for the first 5-10 minutes of the play, I couldn’t see how this was going to work, with faithful versions of the legends narrated against the completely different setup, and iot was only after I’d got use to the concept when I saw how good this was.

So what pipped this at the post? It’s The Red Hourglass from Alan Bissett, and this wins for an ingeniously executed plan to bring people in with no idea what to expect. Walk in with no knowledge other than the fringe blurb and you might expect some lock-room horror mystery, with a promise of five strangers trapped together in a room with no escape, with none of them what they seem. What this omits to mention is that these strangers are all spiders. This only becomes apparent at the beginning when the first character starts of a Braveheart-style speech about being a proud and ancient race, and it’s only when he mentioned how many times over they outnumber humans when you realise he’s not talking about the Scots. If you are scared of spiders, do be warned that this plays upon pretty much every known form of arachnophobia (especially the brilliantly-performed Black Widow psychopath), but for everyone else, it’s hilarious. One of the greatest attractions of festival fringes is being surprised by what you see, and this is one of the finest examples there is.

Best individual performance

This one comes down to a steward’s ruling. Jessica Johnson walked this two years ago with Rita in Educating Rita when the Gala Theatre produced it. As such, her reprise of the role in the Theatre By The Lake tour running now could have been a front-runner. In the end, however, I’ve chosen – for the purposes of these awards – to count this as a continuation of what the Gala started rather than a brand new play. (I made a similar ruling for best classic – I seriously considered this, but as it’s essentially Jessica Johnson who makes the play I didn’t count is as a new entry.)

So, as before, three places. In third place, it’s Robin Humphreys as psychiatrist (struck off) in Here We Are Again by Wired Theatre. His performance actually stretched back over three consecutive Brighton Fringes with three parts of a trilogy, but that was one of his finest. Robin Humphreys usually gets typecast as the lecherous old man, and this isn’t exactly an exception, but this particular performance was exceptional – even though all of Andrew’s woes are completely self-inflicted, you can’t help feeling sorry for a man sinking deeper and deeper into a pit of self-delusion. Trilogies are a tough sell at the Brighton Fringe (especially ones that depend on earlier episodes at previous years), but it was worth it for the best performance I’ve ever seen come out out this company.

Second place I’ve got to give to Andrew Barrett as Renton in Trainspotting, mainly for having the guts to put himself through all the indignities required of the immersive theatre version. For anyone who’s not up to speed with this stage version – I bet you think the film version was in your face? Oh boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Not until you’ve seen Renton on stage waking up in the shitted duvet, and we haven’t even started on retrieving the drugs out of the toilets. It is fair to say that the play as a whole does veer a little too much towards gross-outs for the sake of gross-outs – and this slightly weakens the impact of the ending when the impact of the drugs catches up with them – but there’s little to fault with the performance. Just don’t expect me to understudy. And Ewan MacGregor doesn’t know how easy he had it.

Hand-ChoppingBut in first place, it’s a performance that’s a more understated, but that worked perfectly. It’s Seb Christophers as all of the bullies and baddies in Great Grimm Tales. This is a unusual situation to give an award, because I understand that Box Tale Soup usually rotate their players, and this case he and Noel Byrne were alternating between playing the baddies and the goodies. I didn’t see how they do the other way round, but Seb played the baddies so well, from spoilt youths to the devil himself, that if I didn’t know better I’d have said the part must have been written for him. Who knows, he I came a day later it might be Noel Byrne getting the award for the baddies. Or Seb Christophers getting the award for the goodies. But the understated yet prevalent arrogance of the Grimms villains was a sight to behold, and true to the spirit of the Grimms stories.

Best solo play

This is a recent category, introduced after the realisation that out of the numerous solo plays I see each year, the best ones range from excellent to outstanding. There were a lot of good solo plays to choose from this year, many of which I’d have been happy to put in the top two, so for second place, I decided to pick something out by going back to basics. A lot of solo plays work very effectively with any or all of a lighting plot, sound plot or set, but Green Knight stands out for not needing any of these – instead, it’s a fine piece of storytelling that maximises the visual impact from the few props taken on stage. The play itself is also excellent: Debbie Cannon comes up with a clever retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight as witnessed by Lady Bertilak. As with many of the best adaptations of this nature, nothing is changed from the original story, but new story is added – in this case, who the knights of the Round Table took to be the temptress is a lonely woman treated as a status symbol, in love with the one chivalrous man she’s ever met. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of the finest examples of when this is the case.

tn-500_OnTheRun-TheRebirthOfMeadowRain@Pleasance_DSC6677.cAlexBrennernousewithout1-700x455I have no doubt about what to pick as the winner, however, and this one will be no surprise to anyone who’s heard me raving about this: it’s The Rebirth of Meadow Rain. There are a lot of plays about domestic abuse doing the rounds at the moment, and anyone tired of gloom-fests might ask why they want to see another, but, trust me, this is different from all of the others. Firstly, there’s no shortage of plays spelling out why domestic abuse is bad – and does anyone see this plays who thinks otherwise? – but what’s sorely missing as plays that ask why. And this gives a very convincing, if very chilling, account of how someone who isn’t any fool could end up in something like this. Secondly, it is a very innovative play, with some very clever audience interaction used to tell the story in more ways than I can describe here. And thirdly, it’s not another gloom-fest at all. It’s presented as a happy, almost twee format, which at first steadies you for what is to come, but it still has a uplifting ending that there is life after this kind of relationship if you can get out. I’d never heard of On the Run Theatre or Hannah Moss before this, but I do now. And I hope many other people hear of this to, because this deserves to run again with as many people as possible seeing this.

Most bizarre moment

Also known as the “What the fuck?” award, this is for the most memorable moment for being downright bizarre – in a good way. The bar was unexpectedly raised in 2017 with Blood and Bone, notable for its graphic sex scene between puppet plants. Since then, nothing has come anywhere near this all-time high. But it’s a good showing anyway from this year’s winner, Bright Raven. I still can’t work out exactly what the play was about and wonder if I’ve missed something, in spite of Hoax Theatre’s assurances I haven’t. AS it stands, this seems to be a one-hour enrolment as a “raven”, which could be literally becoming a raven or just a cult that identifies as ravens, and it may or may not culminate in a mass suicide by flying into one of those pesky climate-destroying aeroplanes. It was also a quite surreal experience, with the music played by head raven creating an almost dream-like state. I am told this is a work in progress and it might be that that final version will be a lot clearer in what it’s about. But even if it’s the better version, I will miss this play in its current surrealistic state.

Discretionary award

This award is for recognition of something that is not covered by any of the above categories. This has varied from year to year. Last year, it went to Max Roberts for directing. This year, however, I’m going to dedicate this categories to plays that make you think outside the box.

In second place, then it’s Some Kind of Theatre with The Grandmothers Grimm. Whilst Box Tale Soup might have the more polished Grimms-themed play, this is an interesting one about the origins on the Grimms stories, and in particular questions what influence the Brothers Grimm themselves might have had on the stories, and in particular what ideas they might have had about the roles of women in their stories. I’m unsure how much of this is based in fact, although it would be consistent with their idolisation of woman as mothers which they are thought to have been keen on. Not that the versions before were necessarily better. Briar Rose might have had a better role than Sleeping Beauty, but just wait till you found out what happened instead of the contentious kissing of a sleeping princess. And the opening of the play with an early version of Little Red Riding Hood isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.

But the really interesting play that wins discretionary award is Karin Schmid with Taboo, which forces you to see things from the Nazis’ point of view. One thing that is often forgotten is that not everybody who supported Hitler was into killing everybody and invading the entire world – a lot of people thought National Socialism was about nice things, like wholesome families and wholesome family values. That was the case for Käthe Petersen, one of the highest-ranking female officials in the Third Reich, praised for her work for, in her words, “vulnerable women”. But good intentions gave way to moralising, and moralising gave way to moral hypocrisy. Karin Schmid, I felt, was cautious in her writing and made sure it spelt out that what Petersen did was wrong, but she needn’t have been so cautious – the writing was strong enough for Peterson to implicate herself with her own words. That was one of the most though-provoking plays of the year, and should be seen more often.

Disappointment of the year

This is another year when I haven’t been disappointed by the performances of any of the groups I saw (some plays weren’t very good but they were from groups I hadn’t seen before where my expectations were reset to zero). However, I was disappointed by some of the established scripts that some groups chose to perform. As my issue is with the scripts and not the groups who performed it, I won’t mention the performers here. If you want to look up who it was, you can, but please let it be known that I had no issues with the performances themselves – they can only be as good as the scripts they perform from, but they did the best possible job they could with the scripts they had.

My number two disappointment was Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein. I hadn’t heard of the name of the writer, but I certainly remember hearing about the production, and it looks quite exciting at the time: a National Theatre productions, directed by Danny Boyle, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the lead two roles. But, after all those high expectations, the script was such a let-down. It could have worked very well as the story as viewed by the Creature instead of Victor Frankenstein, but instead of going down that promising route, it switches by to Frankenstein’s story half an hour in – and completely misses the point of his character. In Mary Shelley’s book, Victor Frankenstein has good intentions, is ashamed of what he’s done, and tried in vain to protect those he loves. In this version, Victor Frankenstein is insufferable, marvels at his own genius, and callously endangers those he loves to his own ends. It did pick up some hints at the time that the National Theatre’s productions hadn’t gone down as well as expected – now I think I understand why.

However, the play I really have issues with is East. I am pretty easy-going when it comes to contentious material and rarely speak out over content I consider objectionable, but here I make an exception. East is acclaimed as a literary great as an exploration of the working class – I didn’t really get the play when I read the script, but now that I’ve seen it performed as it’s meant to be, what I saw what a relentless negative depiction of the working class of East End London. All of the five characters in the play are portrated as thugs, or racists, or sluts, or a hybrid of all three, with barely any attempt to show any empathy or nuance. My issue isn’t so much with Stephen Berkoff – my long-standing view is people should be able to write about what they like; if that was Berkoff’s experience of working-class East End London, that’s what he’d have to write; and as a Jew who grew up in what was at the time one of the Blackshirts’ favourite stomping ground, I can forgive Berkoff for holding such a poor opinion of the rest of the East End. What is not forgivable is the rest of the world for uncritically accepting this as the definitive insight of what the proles are like. I cannot think of any other group where this portrayal would be remotely acceptable – can you imagine the reaction there would be if someone wrote a play depicting Muslims as sex offenders, wife-beaters and religious fanatics? The theatre world is currently engaging in a period of soul-searching as to why so few working-class people think theatre is for them. But given the reverence bestowed in plays like East, it’s no fucking wonder so many of them want nothing to do with it.

At some point, I will probably write more about what I think is theatre’s class problem. It goes way beyond one play – but in the meantime, consider this a taster of what I think the real problem is.

Best north-east production

This is another new category, but as there’s already a category for best north-east fringe production, it makes sense to have one for any kind of production in the region. I’m taking a leaf out of British Theatre Guide’s book here are ruling that for it to count as north-east, it must have been rehearsed in the north-east, or some equally good claim to a connection – simply having a north-east theatre as a co-producer isn’t enough. One notable play but out of the running is A Thousand Splendid Suns – I really liked this, but with Birmingham taking the lead on this, the fact that Northern Stage is a co-producer isn’t enough.

So in second place, I’m going for The Hound of the Baskervilles. Note that this one doesn’t earn an automatic spot in the top two just because I didn’t count it as a fringe production earlier – fringe productions can be ranked ahead of even main stage productions if the former is better. However, weighing thing up, I think this earns its place over the small-budget shows I saw this year. It was a good all-rounder, with a decent script, good acting from an ensemble in training and some impressive staging for a Stage 3 production at Northern Stage.

In the end, however, I’m going to name Approaching Empty as the winner. This was a more conventional play than Hound of the Baskervilles – and, in some respects, a safer one to produce – but in the end the strength of the script that won this play Best New Writing also carries it into first place here. This may not be the last we’ve heard of Ishy Din, because he’s collaborating with a musical over on Teesside about the recently-departed steel industry which sounds promising. I’m hoping this comes to fruition, but in the meantime, congratulations to Ishy Din and Live Theatre for taking the inaugural top spot of this category.

Best low-budget/amateur/fringe production

Best production

And so, we come to the big two. Before we begin, small point of order: I’m a bit more relaxed about what I accept as “low-budget” compared to the equivalent north-east category. I want that latter category to be a chance for artists without the backing of Live Theatre or Northern Stage. When you’ve got four festivals, however, it’s impossible to keep track of who’s backing who – but also, the dominance of two local theatres is no longer an issue.

That established, there are two things that have happened for the first time. The one I will announce now is that the top three spots for best production are all taken by fringe productions. This means that for both categories, the recipients of first, second and third place are all the same. As such, I will announce them together. As for the other thing that’s never happened before … well, you’ve have to wait and see.

So, in third place for both best low-budget/amateur/fringe and best production …

be-more-martyn-14

Third place goes to Be More Martyn. To be in with a shot of winning either best fringe production or best production, it’s not enough to produce a superb performance – you need to do something that’s innovative, a gamble, and still a superb performance on top of that. And Hope Theatre Company achieve this with their unique take on verbatim theatre. The production itself is a tried and tested format for bringing real words to the stage (Curious Monkey’s Leaving did something similar last year, also outstanding), but it’s the transformation of a tragedy into a joyous celebration of a life that stands out from the crowd.

Moving on to second place …

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Second place is awarded to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This and the winner both take gambles and innovation to a whole new level. In this case, the idea to re-stage Greek/Roman legends into the completely different setting of a World War 2 music hall was an extraordinary risk to take. Pants on Fire partly owe their success to the superb way this was executed – I’ve already singled out the staging for praise, and the musical score and musical ensemble also heavily count in its favour. But even with everything going to plan, there was no guarantee that an audience would buy into this concept. But that’s exactly what the audience did, myself included.

In fact, this was a close run with the winner. In some respects, this even beats the winner – this was by far the most complex production to pull off and it did it so well. Even with the one thing I didn’t get I’m in a minority. I wasn’t taken in by Theseus’s labyrinth now being a maze through his own mind, but everything else I’ve asked about this thinks it was the best bit. Congratulation to Peter Bramley for creating this concept and the whole company, past and present, for pulling it off.

And finally, here we are. The winner of both best low-budget/amateur/fringe production and best production of 2019 is …

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The Rebirth of Meadow Rain from On the Run Theatre and Hannah Moss. And this is also the first time a solo play has won Best Production, and also probably the lowest-budget play to take the title. Also a win from Ariane Oiticia for telling me about this play and getting me to go to it. I rarely bother with press ticket offers from publicists – I’m more interested when the artists themselves reach out to me – but she’s been good at guessing what I’d like and suggesting plays for me, and it’s paid off handsomely.

But that’s an aside. The reason why Meadow Rain wins, is, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it takes risks and innovates to the levels most plays can only dream of. The subject material was long overdue in itself – plenty of plays spell out why abusive relationships are bad, but few explore how people get into one in the first place – but it’s the way the story was told that makes this outstanding. It’s not that a deathly serious play wouldn’t have got the message across, but the happy, slightly twee exterior of the play draws the audience in far more effectively. The audience interaction was another ingeniously planned move. There’s a bit where Meadow asks the audience to write down their impressions of the new boyfriend, and I won’t spoil it by giving the full details, but it’s read out twice in two different contexts very effectively outlining two different states of mind. For anyone who naively asks “Why didn’t she just leave him?”, this is your answer why.

The only thing that may be little frustrating is that it’s not clear if there will be any more chances to see any of these three plays. Be More Martyn and Ovid’s Metamorphoses were already on their encore runs and that may be it, and as of yet there’s no clues as to whether or not this will return. But I can hope. Congratulations to everyone in this list. Here’s to hoping for some more great theatre in 2020.

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