Chris Neville-Smith’s 2020 Awards

Skip to: Best new writing, Most promising debut, Best adaptation, Most persuasive play, Funniest moment, Tearjerker moment, Best collaborative work, Most effective staging, Most memorable line, Best individual performance, Discretionary award, Best solo play, Best north-east production, Sporting behaviour award, Unsporting behaviour award, Best production

Hello, and welcome to the end-of year awards. First, the housekeeping.

As you might have gathered, this year hasn’t been a typical one for theatre coverage. I’ve only seen a fraction of the theatre I’d see in a normal year, and as a result, many of my categories only have one viable entry. As there’s only so much prestige you can have from winning a category against zero competition, I’ve decided that everyone who I saw this year will be rolled over to next year, when there will hopefully be some proper competition.

However, it would be a shame to not celebrate the theatre that did go ahead, so here are the scaled down awards. This time round, there are usually no runner-up spots, only winners, and I’ve left a few categories out where there wasn’t anything that stood out. But for those of you coming up in 2021, this is who’s currently top of the leader-board.

As this is a theatre blog and not a film or television blog, I have wherever possible stuck to the plays I saw in person rather than on a computer screen – however, there were a few times I’ve gone for something I saw online. So, let’s get started.

Best new writing

As always, the first award is from the strength of the script alone. Whilst there are some great performances attached to them, what I’m after here is something that any competent actors could pick up and make a great play out of it. As it happens, this was a very strongly-contested category, and many of the new writing plays I’ve listed in the later awards were good contenders here.

In the end, I went for Crossing the Line. I don’t normally consider plays I’ve seen in previous years, but the addition of the final chapter was what this play needed to make it complete. (I saw the first three parts two years ago, but I have pretty good idea of what the fourth chapter would have been had it been performed in person instead of online as was originally intended for Buxton Fringe.) It might not be obvious to someone who’s not that familiar with the difficult subject of child abuse – I only learnt about this myself in the process of bringing my own performance to Brighton and Buxton Fringes – but the thing writer Michael Sheath really had something to say about the mindset of many perpetrators: being sorry but really only sorry for being caught, and the idea that it doesn’t really count if it’s only viewed on a computer screen. Moralising is easy, but asking why is difficult – excellent job is trying to answer that question.

Most promising debut

65153507_343282739681309_3447897748345454592_n-1This award doesn’t have to be a fully polished final product, but it does need to show potential for the future from someone who’s new to the environment I saw it in – in this case, The Vault Festival. I don’t need to make allowances for not having to be fully polished though – Skank has been a big success across the board. Described by many as a northern Fleabag, and described by me as a female Peep Show, the thing that makes this the undisputed winner is that this came out of nowhere. Originally a low-key production in her home county of West Yorkshire, this rapidly rose in popularity in the Greater Manchester Fringe, and deservedly so. Combining some of the cringeworthy elements of both aforementioned shows with an abrupt life-changing event that puts it into perspective, it was a big vote of confidence from a festival where acts stand or fall not of the whims of programming directors but plain old popularity with audiences. The Vault Festival is a curated festival, and realistically can’t work any other way, but it’s plays like these that show the value of giving everyone the chance to pen a hit.

Best adaptation

Prince and PauperAdaptations account for quite a lot of the plays I saw. I considered The Snow Queen for Nick Lane’s clever retelling of the story, but winning by a convincing margin is The Prince and the Pauper from the start of the year. This was a strong all-rounder from the New Vic – their Christmas productions run several weeks into January for a reason – but Theresa Heskins secures this on the strength of the adaptation. Mark Twain’s original, classic though it was, suffered from a classic case of an American writing about English history without properly understanding it. Nothing else would explain how you could write a story about Henry VIII and Prince Edward whilst leaving out future Queens Mary and Elizabeth. The obvious solution? Put them back in, leading to many a hilarious moment when killjoy Mary glides in (literally) at the slightest hint of fun to scold them for enjoyment. Twins Danielle and Nichole Bird also do a fine job as Prince and Pauper, and it all adds up to strong showing on all fronts.

Most persuasive play

Usually, I reserve this award for a play that succeeds in winning me over on a cause where I’ve previously either thought the opposite or not really thought about it. This is to encourage theatre makers to stand up for what they believe in and discourage making plays that most of the audience already agrees with. However, for this year only I’m relaxing the rules. It goes to Glitch for Krystina Nellis’s sadly accurate portrayal of the casual prejudice directed at people on the autistic spectrum for not quite fitting in – I found myself nodding along to this. But whilst I do not require persuading, I suspect there’s an awful lot of people who do; not so much because they’re prejudiced themselves, but because they don’t realise the extent of this kind of bigotry. This was also a great story in its own right and doesn’t require a seal of moral approval for my endorsement – indeed, this play was a good contender in several categories – but standing up and saying something makes it win this one. It’s just a pity this long overdue message isn’t being said by more people in the arts.

Funniest moment

tn-500_3No contest, Gareth Cassidy wins hands down for his appearances as Princess Mary in The Prince and The Pauper. I could have given this award for any of the appearances – like the Spanish Inquisition, it’s the kind of running joke that gets funnier the more you expect it – but if I had to pick out a particular entrance it would be when he was already on stage playing a different character, suddenly leaping into Mary’s self-propelling dress the moment she was required to tell of whoever was having fun in violation of the Lord’s will this time. In fact, can we make this standard for all future versions of this story?

Tearjerker moment

I seriously considered Skank for this one. This might seem an unusual choice for something that was mostly an out-and-out comedy, but the bit towards the end where it suddenly stops being a game and the outlook gets a lot darker is quite moving – even the throwaway line of “Thank fuck for that” when it turns out to be a false alarm is hollow; things won’t get back to normal.

so-it-goes-credit-richard-davenport-750x375-1But there is really only one choice in the end, and this is from the online list: the scene from So It Goes where Hannah’s father takes her for a picnic to break the news about his cancer diagnosis. It’s hard to explain this in isolation in a play that works almost entirely on silence and words on paper, but honestly, this bit floored me. Hannah Moss was last year’s winner of best production with The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, and moments like this from her previous play show just how good she is at taking risks that pay off. I plan to go banging on about this play next year when it finally gets round to touring, but in the meantime, congratulations for the previous play.

Best collaborative work

brief-life-and-mysterious-death-of-boris-vault-festivalThis year’s winner is borderline whether I should count it as new writing or collaborative work. This play was jointly written by the two founder-members of Out of the Forest Theatre before being further developed by the cast of five. But in the end, I’m counting The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria as collaborative work because the end product looked very much a joint effort. And what a joint effort it was: a play the describes a little-known chapter of history – the King of Bulgaria in World War Two who resisted the Nazis’ calls to round up the Jews – with clarity, humour, and everything in between. And, as it turned out, this was the right year to do this. With culture wars breaking out and everybody determined to have their own preferred idealised version of history as fact, it’s more important than ever to face reality: the history is messy and complicated, and rarely fits neatly into pantomime heroes and cartoon villains.

Most effective staging

EjelYu-XsAAsjr9The crisis over the last nine months has been there’s not much to offer in the way of adventurous staging – it’s been hard enough a task getting a play on stage at all. However, Actors of Dionysus had big plans for the May Brighton Fringe and were determined to go ahead in the postponed October Fringe no matter what. And whilst the Fringe itself was a very scaled-down affair, there was no sign of a let-up with Savage Beauty. A site-specific piece in a garden, it made very effective use of an upstairs balcony, a downstairs room, and projections on the opposite wall. A few issues with sightlines need resolving – which, to be fair, is ten times harder in immersive theatre – but even in a normal year these would have been a front-runner for staging. Hopefully this will be returning to a future Brighton Fringe and more people will get to see it.

Most memorable line

This is another one for Boris III, King of Bulgaria, with the line “But … they weren’t Bulgarians.” To explain the context: although King Boris did manage to obstruct the extraction of Jews in Bulgaria, he did sign off the same thing for the Jews in Thrace and Macedonia, the territories of Yugoslavia and Greece given to Bulgaria for siding with the Nazis. So many questions are raised by this line. Could he have gone further? Was signing the death warrants of twelve thousand necessary to save other lives? Did he have a duty to protect some lives over others? Is any of that a defence? The play doesn’t attempt to take a stance on this – this is, after all, a prime example of messy complicated history that this play does so well to portray – but it does give a lot to think about. Again: moralising is easy, it’s asking that’s is difficult.

Best individual performance

This was a difficult choice. I came close to giving this to Gareth Cassidy for stealing the show as Princess Mary in The Prince and the Pauper, and it really was a dead heat between this and the eventual winner. In the end, I decided to employ, as a tie-breaker, how far the two front-runners stepped out of their comfort zone. Gareth Cassidy was playing to his strength – he has made many a New Vic production with his comic roles. But ahead by a whisker is someone doing something different.

The Snow Queen enchants puppet KaiThe winner for best individual performance is Polly Lister in The Snow Queen as the Sorceress of Summer, the wicked Snow Queen, Gerda, Kai, and everybody else. And, as far as I can see, this comic multi-roled performance is different from what she normally does – the roles I’ve previously seen her in at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Little Voice and Di, Viv and Rose) were both serious single-character parts. I am used to key actors in major theatres to be very versatile, but when the stakes are this high it was needed more than ever. Congratulations on this nail-biting victory.

Discretionary award

This is to recognise something that is not covered by any of the other categories – there is always something of note that falls through the gaps. This one you have not seen on this blog because I am working with the director on other projects, and therefore it was not eligible for review. However, in the awards section the rules on ineligibility by association are slightly relaxed. This discretionary award goes to Gary Kitching, writer of Sunset on Tantobie, the Gala’s recent audio production. And – kudos though there is for working this in – it’s nothing to do with the scene where someone has an eye test in Barnard Castle (but not the one you heard about in the news, a completely different one).

As you will be aware, as a Durham local, one of my biggest gripes is the ongoing assumption that the north east is Newcastle. In the 2000s, the Gala Theatre (and the cultural department of the council) was notorious for repackaging Durham as a bunch of canny Geordie fellas; in the last decade, things have been shifting in the right direction, but only slowly. A lot things need doing: less dependence on importing talent from outside, more enthusiasm for the grass-roots artists they already have, but the thing we have here is a play that finally treats Durham as an cultural entity in its own right. It’s absurdly self-aware, with the assortment of narrators noting that there’s more to Durham than its proximity to the Angel of the North, and that there are subjects available in Durham-based plays other than mining (with or without ballerinas). I just hope the Gala doesn’t make the mistake of assuming the sole strength of this play is a witty reference to an event in the news – it achieves more, and I really hope the Gala keeps doing this.

Best solo play

130132892_3653410151348507_461374671274428092_oThis was a open contest this year; I’d have been happy for any of the solo plays to win here. But since solo plays have suddenly found a use as mainstream theatre, I decided this time round to put more weight on wide appeal, and on that count, The Snow Queen edges into pole position. But no-one can deny how much they went to town on this. So many bigger theatres look down on the solo performance as not a proper play, and would have been embarrassed if they couldn’t do anything more. The Stephen Joseph theatre, however, did everything they could to make the most of this. Whilst fringe theatre has known for a long time how good the solo play can be, maybe this can bring solo theatre into the mainstream – it certainly deserves its place there.

Best north-east production

ask-me-anything-2019-at-live-theatre-90s-sitcom-feat.-kylie-perry-01-1140x570-1We’re a bit short on options this year. The north-east theatres were slower off the mark to get restarted than some of their southern counterparts, and when they did, they were really out of luck. As a result, the best north-east production I saw this year is also the worst north-east production I saw this year, and the only north-east production I saw this year.

But I’m quite happy for the title to go to Ask Me Anything, the Paper Birds’ new play co-produced with Live Theatre. It’s about time they had this level of recognition,because they are one of the boldest and most innovative companies I’ve seen in action in the north-east. They first impressed with the caravan in Mobile four years, and they’ve carried over this style of staging into this main-stage production. It was a tricky play to produce – having to aim itself at both teenagers wanting to know what’s in store in the world, and grown-ups who’ve been there, but in previous decades when things were different – but history is rarely made by companies who play it safe.

Sporting behaviour award

Up to now, this award – for somebody who has earned my respect for reasons other than how good a play was – has been a footnote in the proceedings. This year, it has become a lot more important. In the most extraordinary of years, people have gone to extraordinary lengths for the things they love. So whilst most of the other awards have one winner, this is going to three top places. I could list a lot more, but these three are the ones who really went above and beyond.

In third place, it’s comedian Nathan Cassidy for performing his new show Roses from Joe at Buxton Fringe, simply for the fact he did a live performance at all. Buxton Fringe 2020 was never officially an online fringe – the rules were the same as always, anyone can do anything they want within the law – but by June it was pretty much expected the entire performance section of the programme would be online. If nothing else, outdoor performances were still not permitted by law. But gatherings up to six outdoors were allowed, and that included one performer and five audience. By fortuitous coincidence, the go-ahead for outdoor theatre happened a few days beforehand, allowing the cap to be lifted. There was really no reason to do this other than sheer bloody-mindedness, but we at chrisontheatre towers admire sheer bloody-mindedness. This also means I am amongst nineteen people who can now say (depending on how you measure the size of a festival fringe) we saw every performance at the UK’s largest fringe one year.

In second place, it’s The Shows Must Go On. When there was no theatre at at the start of The Event, many major companies took to streaming plays online for free. The National Theatre was the most prominent one, but this one from the Really Useful Group was a close second. To start with, it was a back catalogue of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s greatest hits; once they ran out of shows with a filmed version available they moved on to other musicals. But there is one thing they did differently. Most theatres offering streamed content asked people to donate money to themselves; that’s fair enough, the situation is dire, I understand why self-preservation was a priority. However, The Shows Must Go On instead asked people to support people affect other than themselves, through funds such as Acting for Others. Now, it is fair to note that the one person who does not need the money is Andrew Lloyd Webber – I have no doubt his shows will carry on no matter what is thrown his way – but anyone who concentrates on helping others first and worrying about themselves second has my respect.

Open Air Theatre on Brighton Beach UK
Credit Simon Dack / Alamy Live News

But the winner for sporting behaviour achieved something extraordinary. The unexpected highlight of my year was The Warren Outdoors. We now know that socially-distanced summer outdoor productions put on at short notice are a safe bet – indeed, every venture of the kind I know about went on the be a great success. But at the time, nobody knew would be the case – and in this case, it wasn’t even certain the venue would be allowed at all. As I discovered in this interview, there was three weeks between the go-ahead from Brighton Council and the first performance. How did they know the gambles were worthwhile? They didn’t; the sole motivation was making the best situation of doing what they can. I would never ask any theatre to make this sort of gamble – I dread to think what would have happened had everything gone wrong – but it’s the people who take these risks that make it worthwhile for the rest of us. If we go into another summer like the last one, we now know that you can put on something like this and make it a success.

Unsporting behaviour award

The Scotsman won this for the last two years for various crimes of self-importance at the Edinburgh Fringe, but with the Edinburgh Fringe called off this year, the contest was thrown wide open. In the end, however, the award has to go to Laurence Fox. Not, I must stress, for the views he expresses. This is a pro-free speech blog and I defend the right of artists to express views at odds with the rest of the arts world – the arts must never be a profession where they are curbs on saying what you think. But the thing is, Laurence Fox isn’t saying what he thinks. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) his sole agenda is causing as much outrage as possible with his absurd utterances.

Congratulations Laurence, you have succeeded in taking the crown where Quentin Letts and James Delingpole failed. Here is the attention you ordered as your prize. You can stop this now. And for everyone else who responded in outrage every time, well done for your part you played into making him number one attention-seeker, but you can now start ignoring him. Let him revert to being on irrelevance. Or carry on feeding the outrage machine until he goes full Katie Hopkins and destroys his career with something ridiculously offensive. Whatever, I don’t care.

Best production

So we come to the end. For best production, I look for three things: an original concept, good execution of this concept, and wide audience appeal. And looking through the list, there’s really only one choice of a play that performed strongly in all three areas:

Yes, the winner of Best Production 2020 is The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria from Out of the Forest Theatre. It’s a difficult enough job taking on a little-known complicated subject from history – certainly one where the defining moment is so morally ambiguous – but to do it in such a way that is so accessible and enjoyable to people whilst staying so informative is the achievement this play uniquely achieves amongst everything from the year.

2020 is, of course, the easy year a play to go on to win Best Production, with thin competition the rest of the year. But this would have been a good contender in a normal year. The big question now is who will in the upcoming 2020-2021 awards. Will King Boris hold the title, or is there something I’ve yet to see in 2021 who will top this. Join me same time next year to find out.

1: Best production: And

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