This is something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I introduced the Ike Awards back in 2017. Since Brighton Fringe that year I’ve been using this as my equivalent for a five-star rating in a blog that otherwise doesn’t do star ratings. But there’s still five years of material before then, many of whom also deserved recognition. So, whilst there’s nothing else to keep up with, let’s do the long-overdue backdated awards.
We start with 2012, beginning with the reason Ike Awards are named after Ike …
Sparkle and Dark have had three highly successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the one that started it off wasn’t what anyone expected. They came into 2012 best known for The Clock Master, three linked fairy tales with a subtle dark undertone. It was billed as a children’s show but massively popular with adults as well as families (always a good sign). This doubtless would have been a big hit had they taken it to the Edinburgh Fringe, so it came as a big surprise when they instead took a brand new play, taking on the considerably darker subject of nuclear war.
Both The Clock Master and The Girl With No Heart were produced to an excellent standard. Writer Louisa Ashton, director Shelley Knowles-Dixon and musician Lawrence Illsley are an excellent team who between them put together an excellent mix of puppetry, music, choreography and Grimms-style storytelling. But the thing that pushes The Girl With No Heart to Ike Award level is the courage to take and extraordinary gamble: having a tried tested surefire hit ready and instead going for something untested they thought were better. It was a reckless gamble too, and I’m no ready to recommend anyone else tries this, but it paid off. Congratualtions Sparkle and Dark, you win.
Ike, by the way, is one of the characters from The Girl with No Heart. When I was trying to think of a name for the awards I eventually settles on an arbitrary name, like the Oscars of the Tonys. As the first place to meet this standard, Sparkle and Dark, have (with their permission) the honour of the award being named after their creation.
There was one other name I recognised in the Edinburgh Fringe listings, and that was Caroline Horton. Like Sparkle and Dark, she’d come to my attention the previous year, this time with the You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, a lovely recreation of her French Grandmother’s story of being separated from her English fiance is World War Two. Unlike Sparkle and Dark, this has already had a successful run at Edinburgh, so moving on to something new was the only option. Her follow-up, Mess, had an even more personal connection than the last one – and it did not disappoint.
Mess is a semi-fictionalised story of Horton’s own battle with anorexia. For most of of, it’s the most puzzling of illnesses – what would make anyone do something so self-destructive? This does a lot to help understand why. The most memorable moment is where Josephine sees in hospital another woman, little more than a skeleton. One would think that would be a horrible warning of what to avoid – instead, it’s a target to beat. Another strong theme in the play is what effect anorexia has on the people around you, in this case Boris played by Hannah Boyd. And yet – the play as a whole is uplifting and often funny, help along by Seiriol Davies’ brilliant musical score. It was a very brave thing to take to the stage, but such a great thing to bring to everyone.
I’ve not written much about Caroline Horton lately – after Mess she moved in a new direction, and I don’t get her new work. I’m not knocking it – she has amassed a big following for her new work so she’s doing something right. But Mess remains one of my highlights of 2012, and for most of the year is was a very tight run between her and Sparkle and Dark for best production of the year.
And then, just when it looks like I’d have an agonising choice for best play of 2012, something came along and pipped them at the post. I’d been aware there was an up-and-coming pair of names at Northern Broadsides, with director Conrad Nelson and writer Deborah McAndrew almost functioning as a company within a company, and their innovative adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarachist. But it was their re-telling of The Government Inspector that shines at their all-time best.
The concept is a pretty obvious one to do: some things never change, and Gogol’s story of corruption in 19th-century Russia fits perfectly almost anywhere, this time an unspecified borough somewhere in Yorkshire or Lancashire. Council chairman Tony Belcher is big fish in a small pond, loving his position of tinpot tyrant. The rest of the council official are equally opportunistic and self-serving, so when a low-grade civil servant is mistaken for an inspector to root out corruption, they pamper him. Jonathan Sapper ought to be another villain, but he is such as idiot whose delusions of grandeur are inflated by corrupt official you can’t help like him. No Northern Broadsides production would be complete without their signature touches, and the on-stage brass brand and Yorkshire humour completed a perfect transplant to the region.
Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew hold the unique achievement of winning best production twice. They were the natural successors to Barrie Rutter when he stepped down as artistic director, so the foregone conclusion of taking over the rein was sharply contrasted with leaving Northern Broadsides completely after a year with Conrad Nelson as interim director. They are now working at a much more local level with their own Stoke-based Claybody Theatre, and I intend to catch up with this when I have the chance. In the meantime, congratulation once again for superb execution of a long-over idea.