Theatre blog fans will remember that that when my list of theatre thing to cover suddenly dried up owing to this Thing In The News you might have heard about, I’d take the opportunity to catch up on something I’d been meaning to do for some time: backdate my Ike Awards to the start of my blog. The Ike Awards, I may remind you, are my equivalent to a 5-star review for a review publication that doesn’t use star ratings. I’d originally planned to go all the way up to the present, but I then discovered I liked the retrospective element: commenting on the plays I loved the most once more, years after I’d seen it. Sometime, it was interesting to see what happened next; sometimes, it was just fun to recall how good it was.
So I decided to leave a four,year gap, with the 2017 retrospective to come in 2021, long after the aforementioned Thing In The News is over. Spoiler: it’s still going on (sad-trombone.wav). But not to be daunted, let’s have a look at the year. A shorter list than usual, but also one of the most disparate.
Sometimes I have predicted artists starting out will go on to great things and gone on to the proven right, but sometimes I proven wrong by the people I underrated Although Paddy Campbell’s debut, Wet House, was a big success, I wasn’t that enthused with what I felt was a lack of plot. What I underestimated, however, is just how good he was at the thing he does best, which is writing about what he knows. All of his plays were based on his experiences of working in social care, and this grew stronger, but it was piece of verbatim theatre that topped it all.
As everyone who does this knows, the trick to good verbatim is how you edit it to end up with something interesting. Certainly that is how Steve Gilroy does it, widely regarded as the north-east leader in verbatim theatre. Paddy Campbell did this well, but brought something extra: he got these young people leaving the care system and the carers who looked out of them to open up with fascinating stories. The rest of the production is strong too, thanks to Amy Golding and Curious Monkey. It would have been a fine productions with the actors just standing there and tell these stories, but the extra visual elements – such as a single mention of an Ofsted inspection sending everyone into a mass panic – adds to the production superbly. It goes into fascinating depth and this verbatim theatre is – dare I say it? – even better that Stephen Gilroy’s smash hits.
The problem with writing about what you know? There’s only a finite supply of material from real life. Eventually the source of inspiration which earns you so much praise will dry up. But Paddy Campbell may have more strings to his bow than you think. I shan’t disclose what I’ve chatted to him about off the record, but I will say he does have some promising irons in the fire on subjects other than the care system. I was a late convert, but congratulations for a rare home-gown production earning my highest praise.
Mankind had one of the greatest hits at the Brighton Fringe with Groomed, where Patrick Sandford gave his recollections of abuse as a child. For various reasons, I am unable to review this play, not least because Patrick Sandford went on to direct me two years later. However, I can relax the rules a little for Mankind’s other strand in 2017, a collaboration with a group called Speak Up Act Out. This is “forum theatre” where a short playlet is acted out for the purposes of starting a discussion. My interest in reviewing is the play alone and not the effect of any discussion, however worthy, so normally I wouldn’t even consider rating this kind of theatre for anything. But as play in its own right, the play was outstanding, albeit one that comes with a massive massive trigger warning.
People on the receiving end of sexual abuse have to put up with all sorts of crap, but there are a few things that are virtually unique to abuse of men: men can’t be raped, you should have enjoyed it, by speaking out you’re undermining the voice of the real victims; and – worst of all – the assumption amongst some that in female-on-male abuse, the male must somehow be the culprit. One might think there would be limits to this; in adult-on-child abuse, surely no-one would label the child a perpetrator?
But they do, and this play depicts how this happen. As a child, the victim is blamed by his mother for being a “dirty boy” and doesn’t want to know what is older stepsister have done to him. As an adult, still carrying this millstone, any attempts to talk about his past are casually brushed aside, dismissed without really listening, or interpreted into something it’s not for the stupidest trivial reasons. The whole thing is terrifyingly convincing in every detail. The social good this play was meant to achieve was a post-play discussion on how things could have been handled better – with listening being on obvious solution. But surely the greatest impact of the play is showing, in the most hard-hitting way possible, the devastating cost of disregarding someone’s demons from the past, and how easy it is to do it.
As for Patrick Sandford, what I think I can say without breaking rules on conflict of interest is that he is an absolute delight to work with as a director.
Northern Stage’s training programme, NORTH, has been through several incarnations, but for a few years it produced an ensemble from the actors on each programme. The ensemble from their inaugural year, however, must have surpassed even Northern Stage’s wildest dreams. Not only are The Letter Room a fine bunch of actors, they are also experts at technical design and play more instruments than I can keep track of. I first saw them with Five Feet in Front, a sort-of Wild West version of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I was amazed at how much they could do for an ensemble that not so long ago was training.
However, to get an Ike Award you have to do something really different, and this was achieved with their follow-up, No Miracles Here, taking on the far trickier subject of depression. The story is told through soul band Ray and the Rayettes; Ray is the character battling with his demons and the rest of the Rayettes are something far more abstract, doubling up and narrators, voices in Ray’s head, and characters in a seemingly metaphorical dance marathon. It is difficult to describe the parallels between soul dancing and a battle inside a head in a two paragraph review – and, I confess, I didn’t pick up some of the references meant – but thing that blew me away was their versatility. Pretty much every member of the ensemble was switching between acting, singing, and multiple instruments and made it look like they could do this standing their heads.
For a while now I’d been wondering if this was going to be their swansong, as they’d gone quiet for a while, but it was announced this month they’ve partnered with the Lowry, and their first product is a delightful video “The best thing I’ve done all year” where children talk about their favourite things over the last notorious year. Not such good news is the fate of Northern Stage at Edinburgh, which was how The Letter Room got to the Edinburgh Fringe in the first place. In 2018 they took a hiatus, supposedly for one year, but that hiatus now looks permanent – it seems that the subsidised venue model just wasn’t sustainable in an ever-growing festival. In a festival that otherwise has low participant from the region, participation gets lower still. But should we focus on Edinburgh? Would other festivals be a better bet? Or with the Edinburgh Fringe being smaller for a while, could this be revisited?
Who knows. In the meantime, The Letter Room hold the title of the only north-east group to get my highest rating at a fringe.
Closing the list, however, is my favourite kind of Ike Award: one from a grass-roots company I’ve previously never heard of, in the. And it’s in a genre where I thought it was impossible to stand out from the crowd: the zombie apocalypse. “Ah, but this isn’t any old zombie tale – it’s all about the relationship between the survivors and never knowing who to trust, that makes it different” says basically everybody. This one, however, manages to do something different: a solo performance where a nameless survivor finds a CB radio with the mysterious “Taylor” on the other end. The next hour is a brilliantly-done mind game between the two.
The challenge of this sort of play, of course, is how to avoid it looking static. A less creative company would have had our survivor standing in one spot for an hour talking to the CB. Whether the survivor is setting up the former fancy dress shop now repurposed as a survival bunker, or drifting between distrustful co-operation and psychological warfare, there is never a dull moment. And topping it off is a great score to suit this apocalyptic world. Cockroached may have been a one-off production from this group, but for me it’s up there with some of the best work of established artists.
But wait …
So there are four outstanding plays listed here, but eagle-eyed theatre blog fans might have noticed the overall winner of best production isn’t on this list. That went to Northern Broadsides for Cyrano de Bergerac. The reason for this discrepancy is that when I decide on best production, I look for wide audience appeal. The four Ike-winners, outstanding though they all are, were really niche plays all having a specialist appeal of their own.
Northern Broadsides – or more specifically, the Conrad Nelson / Deborah McAndrew wing of Northern Broadsides – gets the honour of being the only group to have won Best Production twice. The only reason Cyrano didn’t get an Ike Award like previous Best Production A Government Inspector is that this played it slightly safer than its predecessor; it remained in the original setting of Imperial France rather than the usual modern-day transplant (albeit with a very good reason to stay where it was). But everything else about this spelt out all of Nelson and McAndrew’s strengths: effective staging, great music, and a format that makes the classics accessible to everyone.
And that dtaws 2017 to a close. Join us next year for the 2018 retrospective, which I know at least one person can’t wait for.