Chris Neville-Smith’s 2021 awards

It’s the end of the year, and once more I’m not letting a diminished line-up get in the way of celebrating the best theatre that stood out for me this year. Some people are asking why you should bother with end-of-year best-of lists when it’s an achievement to have put on anything this year at all. That’s a fair enough point, and I have a lot of respect for anyone who’s managed to overcoming all the obstacles to put on any kind play – but there’s always things in any year that stood out and deserve the acclaim for that. When an outstanding play deserves to have praises shouted out from the rooftops, you do nobody any favours by handing out a participation prize instead.

In change to a previously announced arrangement (where I intended to roll over the few plays from 2020 into the 2021 awards), I’ve decided to stick with just 2021 this year. I may do some awards for a combined 2020-2021 later, but for now the same rules apply as last year. With a reduced field of competition, I’m only committing to naming winners – a second place will only be mentioned if it was a close call. This time round, I have something for most of my usual categories, but I’m leaving the odd one out when nothing fits. Disappointment of the Year remains suspended until further notice.

For the second year running, I’m including online theatre. There is a lot of ambiguity here over what can be considered online theatre and what’s just an online video. To keep it manageable, I’m currently counting content that is either a filmed version of an actual stage play, or produced by a group who normally to theatre. No decision over whether to include online in future years as yet – I’ll decide when the time comes.

Introductions completed, let’s begin how we always begin.

Best New Writing

Ofow-production-shot1ne of my highest acclamations, this if for a play whose strength lies in the script. It should be possible for another group to start afresh with the script and still produce something great. This year, there was one thing that stood out. It stands out for reasons other than the script too: I loved the way this was done as a video with the three actors in their own homes. But the clincher for Fow is a tri-lingual play. You can watching this story as an English speaker or a Welsh speaker or a sign language speaker and only pick up part of the story – but the titbits of information you get from your own language, together with visual clues from the other two stories, allows you to fill in the gaps. Alun Saunders’ regular writing (at least the bits I could understand) is also great and put together rounded characters: in English, you get the cynical and apathetic Josh who turns out to be that way for a reason. Writing that is this unconventional is a big gamble: it’s hard to pull off and ruins a play if it doesn’t work out. It’s always difficult in this situation to tell whether the writer knew what he was doing all along, or is was a risk to him too and he had know idea how it would work out. But through boldness or recklessness, Deaf and Fabulous and Taking Flight thoroughly earned the first award.

Best north-east low-budget/fringe play

screen209There is a debate over exactly what counts as a north-east production. The strongest contender for this title was a key production in the inaugural Durham Fringe written by the manager of a Durham theatre, but it was heavily backed and funded by London-based Pleasance Theatre and premiered there. However, Piccolo Theatre’s Screen 9 blows the socks off the competition. Even though it was drew little attention from most of the north-east theatres and art media, it went on to the Edinburgh Fringe where it raked in so many four- and five-star reviews I lost count. (And yes, I am aware that the media was kind to the few acts that went to Edinburgh this year, but even taking that into account this was way off the scale.) Make no mistake, this is rare. There are plenty of north-east plays that go to Edinburgh with the backing of Live Theatre and Northern Stage with varying fortunes, but I can only think of two plays that have had comparable success (Donna Disco, The Soaking of Vera Shrimp). This could not have been a better start for Durham Fringe, and suddenly Newcastle doesn’t have a monopoly on the north-east fringe scene.

Most promising debut

10_things_1I work to a loose definition of “debut” to mean new to the setting they’re performing in. A long-standing theatre group might count as a debut if they’re new to the Edinburgh Fringe. This time, however, it’s ther other way round. Hannah Sowerby has had plays at London and Edinburgh but 10 Things To Do In A Small Cumbrian Town is, I believe, her first play at Alphabetti Theatre (and certainly her first under their programming format of three-week runs). The reasons I haven’t reviewed this yet are a long story, as is the reason I ended up seeing this in the first place, but there’s a lot of potential here. The play suggests this is about boredom of living in a small rural town plus the shortage of women seeking women over there, but although these both feed into the story the real theme of the story of telling yourself everything’s okay and fighting off depression. The play does take its time to get the point, but when the crunch comes it pulls it off where it’s needed. Review to follow, I promise, but a chance viewing has put her on my list of someone to look out for.

Most persuasive play

poster-1.1-300x300-1This was a recent category I introduced to encourage writers and theatre makers to make decent arguments. The thing I am most definitely not looking for here is one of the many plays whose sole selling point is bring people along who already believe something so they can have the opinions you already hold spoon-fed back to them. Instead, I’m looking for something that might win people over to something they’ve not thought about before, and preferably something I’ve not thought about before. Mimi’s Suitcase made an excellent case for the value of freedom, and would have won had it not been for the rule that repeats of things I’ve seen in previous years aren’t eligible. So instead the title goes to Cash Point Meet (scroll to 30th August). Two women end up in a line of work which involves mugging willing men at cash machines, which for some reason aforementioned men consider a turn-on. In theory, this has all the perks of sex work without the actual sex; reality, however, is not so straightforward. The point Obstreperous Young Ladies makes really well is how the anti-prostitution laws in Ireland do more harm than good. This would probably need trim if it comes to Edinburgh in person – and it would probably benefit from addressing fewer issues in more depth – but I hope this does make it because it covers grounds few others have thought about.

Best adaptation

Dorian-Gray-Dorian-and-Sybil-argue-P-e1623232957934And now, the first properly contested category. There were two strong adaptations this year and this could have gone either way to Dorian Gray or The Offing. In the end, however, I’m giving it to Blue Devil Theatre for The Tragedy of Dorian Gray. Both were excellent adaptation, but The Offing‘s strength was a lot more in the overall production values, whilst this play’s strength lies very much in the script. It brings a new vision to the classic Oscar Wilde story, transplanted to the 1960s, with hypocrtical celebrity culture and attitudes to homosexualty barely moved on from the Victorian setting of the original. One of the most important rules of adaptation is that everything that matters must be the same, and the role of the cursed painting plays its same faithful role here, but the changed setting adds something new. I am used to strong adaptations from Blue Devil Theatre, so I guess it was only a matter of time before they scooped this one, but the wait is over.

Sporting behaviour award

Most categories have a limited field to choose from; this one, however, I would gladly give to anyone who’s gone ahead and made theatre this year under the most adverse of circumstances. But some efforts were more Herculean than others, and this year I’m giving this jointly to Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe. And to clarify what I mean by this, it’s not just the central organisations who oversee these festivals, but everyone who made it happen including the venues and the performers. Brighton Fringe got going barely ten days after performances were permitted, with no knowing whether audience would return. But they prevailed, with the socially distance model (together with the token 2020 fringe plus last year’s Warren Outdoors) showing how it can be done. One would have thought that Edinburgh Fringe, taking place two months later, would have had an easier ride – but they were clobbered by an absurd rule in Scotland requiring double social distancing for performing arts alone. However, they too managed throw something together at the last moment. In both cases, they were rewarded with excellent audiences, diminished from previous years but still far more than enough to go round those who took part. Both these fringes have seen their futures under threat over the last two years, but they held there nerves and now things are looking a lot more secure. And I cannot begin to repeat how important it is to have festivals open to anyone who wants to take part.

Unsporting behaviour award

No fun allowed signThe Scottish Government does at least have the defence of having more important things to worry about than a high-profile arts festival, but there was still one unwelcome contributor who didn’t have this defence. Surprisingly, it’s not the Scotsman; even though they made tits of themselves three years running up to 2019, this year they’ve behaved themselves – I even have cordial relations with one of the reporters nowadays. No, this year the clear villain of the piece is The Cockburn Association (or, to use its full title “The fucking Cockburn Association”). An organisation that supposedly exists to protect the heritage of Edinburgh has now appointed itself as Nimby-in-Chief. One would have thought a tiny fringe of this year’s size might prompt them to give it a rest. Nope – they’ve doubled down on their attacks with increasingly spurious claims, with the rubbish about Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site status under thread being spouted so many times, Unesco even intervene to say that’s not true. There are plenty of valid concerns over the Edinburgh Fringe, but the Cockburn Association’s position is blatantly that anything they don’t enjoy should be banned so that no-one else should be allowed to enjoy it either. I will be summarising everything wrong with them when I finish my Edinburgh Fringe roundup (trust me, I haven’t even started yet). In the meantime, for anyone who has valid concerns over the fringe – of which there are many – you can do a lot better than these people.

Best collaborative work

E7erP7hXoAEWn6lNormally this would be a fiercely-contested category, but this time there’s only one entrant. I was expecting a lot more plays than usual to be solo plays, but for some reason the few multi-cast plays I saw almost all had the conventional separation of director and cast. The only play I can think of that was in any way collaborative was  Screen 9, who therefore wins as sole contender. But they earned it. As well as the play being a joint effort of the cast, Screen 9 also worked as a collaboration with American charity Survivors Empowered in their quest to make these sorts of stories about the people affected rather than sensationalising the shooters. Congratulations to Piccolo Theatre for getting the first double this year.

Funniest moment

Tearjerker moment

e9nmbdavgaa1brbWith fewer plays to choose from this, I can’t think of any ideal examples the embody one or the other here, so this year, as a one-off, I’m going to combine the two for the best tragi-comic moment, which goes to the Miles Sisters for The Little Glass Slipper by the Queen of France and her friends. A third one one from the online programme of Edinburgh Fringe, it paints a wonderful yet painful portrayal of Marie Antoinette playing Cinderella. At first glance, she looks like one of these annoying hipsters who thinks it’s cool to pretend to be poor (and spend a lot of money in doing so), but it soon becomes clear she is just deeply misguided. She thinks it’s an act of solidarity with the poor, and is far too out of touch to understand how badly it is going down, yet you can’t help feeling sorry for her and her realisation (if not the reason why) that everybody hates her. And the tragic-comic moment that sums it all up is the ending that draws a parallel with Cinderella’s big day at the aisle with Maries Antoinette’s big day at the scaffold. The online version is a high-resource play that won’t be easy to take to Edinburgh, but it would be great if they can bring it for real.

Most effective staging

883827db-0b4f-401f-938a-bac2bc4d5b45And now this one. Many of the categories here only had one viable contender; this one, however, had lots of possibilities. It could have gone to Screen 9 for the narration from the audience (as per the Assembly Rooms staging for Durham Fringe); it could have gone to Dulcie’s shack in The Offing. Even though Road didn’t quite work out as a Stage 1 play at Northern Stage, I really liked the grand design of the road set. But this award award isn’t for most lavish staging but most effective staging. And winning this by a convincing margin is There’s a Ghost in my House from Sweet Productions. There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is the video footage made by Simon Moorhead, whose career in TV producing (including possibly the only ghost-themed program that tried to apply some actual science) made him a natural for this. However, this less obvious one is the regular set, which looks decorative, but on closer inspection virtually every item on the shelf is relevant to the story in one way or another. Grand designs are are very well, but this is a perfect example of less is more.

Best classic/revival/long-runner

There were two good contenders for this spot. The Stephen Joseph Theatre put on a decent production of Home, I’m Darling which I would have been happy to win this. But slightly ahead I’m giving this to Shook. The play 2021shook_capof three young fathers in prison makes a refreshing change as one of hope, where being a role model for your child can be made more appealing than continuing down a life of crime. For the production, it was a big coup for New Celts and Twisted Corners to gets right to this so soon after the Papatango prizewinner performance in London, but if Samuel Bailey had any worries about a small company doing his play justice he needn’t have been. They understood the script, were very effective at staying in character when the focus wasn’t on them, and even with the impractical shape of the stage they got at the Edinburgh Fringe they made that work. The only limitation was that it was difficult to shorten the play to an Edinburgh-friendly length without all the plot threads continuing to make sense, but hopefully there will be some performances outside of the fringe where the cut bits can go back in. Writers can get protective of new work, but this is a fine example of why to trust people who believe in it.

Unexpected gem of the year

As I said, Disappointment of the year (for the inevitable play that looked promising but turned out to be a let-down) is suspended for now, but this category – for a play I didn’t have much hope for but went on to pleasantly surprise me – is still in play. And the only contender for this has to be Fow. I’ve already said what was good about this, but what I haven’t said was how much it contrasted with my initial impression. A trilingual play might make the point that some people have to put up with not understand two thirds of what’s being said all the time; but I was convinced this couldn’t be sustainable for a whole 100 minutes. But, as I said earlier, it is thank to the clever writing and its use of visual cues where you get to fill in the gaps. I don’t expect any artists to deliberately set out with low expectations only to surprise me later, but when it happens – whether by accident or on purpose – it’s always good to see.

Best solo play

And now, at last, a rich choice on offer. There were plenty of solo plays in 2021 – this is not too surprising, as it’s by far the easiest thing to organise. As well as dispensing of the need to find a cast (the driving force behind a solo play is almost always the solo performer), it also minimising the risk of one person catching Covid and taking out the entire cast in self-isolation. As such, there are plenty of great plays to choose from, so I’m going to to two place here. Even then, it’s tough choice to pick two. In the end, I’ve decided to favour safe plays that are finished products over more adventurous but have work to do. And on that score, second place goes to Watson: the Final Problem, which was a nicely-polished retelling of Sherlock Holmes’s showdown with his deadliest adversary as witnessed by his closest companion, performed by Tim Marriott.

richard-sheltonBut whilst it was a tough choice for second place, there was a clear winner: Sinatra: Raw. I was expecting an undemanding hour with a Sinatra look-a-like and sing-a-like and banter-a-like, but it’s so much more. The reminiscing between songs becomes an exploration of the darkest moments of Frank Sinatra’s life, and shows better than anyone that Sinatra’s songs are sung their best when you really feel it. It’s such a simple idea it’s a wonder no-one thought of this before, but it takes something exceptional to execute the idea this well. Congratulations of Richard Shelton for making this concept a reality.

Best individual performance

I’ve already hinted at the winner of this, but this was another category where I was spoilt for choice. As well as Richard Shelton’s aforementioned performance as Sinatra, Cate Hamer’s performance as Dulcie was excellent, especially the moment where she reveals what happened to the elusive Romy. But in the end, there was an agonising choice for this, with Sweet Productions in competition with itself. The performance I saw in There’s a Ghost in My House of Sam, tormented by ghosts not of the supernatural kind but the memory kind, was incredible. I was convinced Emily Carding had this in the bag.

cktioao8f007n5oo3dregf2nu-jekyll-hyde-heather-rose-andrews-photographer-andrew-o-hara- pipping Carding to the post is Heather Rose-Andrews for Jekyll and Hyde: A one-woman show. I’ve maintained that most roles in classic literature can be gender-swapped if you find a way to make it work, but Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous alter-ego Mr. Hyde has to be one of the hardest. But Rose-Andrews found a way to perform this, right from the Jekyll at her most studious to Hyde at her most sadistic, including the moment I’d have thought were the most difficult to transplant. And the clincher was the transformation scene, starting in agony but evolving into the confident swagger of a maniac. I am used to good performances from Heather Rose-Andrews, but it seems that she goes up a gear when you specifically write the right part for her to play.

Most bizarre moment

E2jffOUXoAw2e1SBit of a difficult one this year. This was previously known as the “What the fuck?” award for the moment that makes me say this – in a good way. To give you an example of what I have in mind, the all-time title holder is a graphic sex scene between puppet plants. The clear winner this time was something I saw at the press launch of Brighton Fringe, and the only trouble is I can’t decide whether this was intentional or it was meant to be a deeply profound and moving piece of dance. Either way, this involved a woman dancing far too intimately with a puppet of what appears to be a cross-breed of Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Morph from Morph. The dance piece is called Watching but even the compère called is “Sexy Morph”. If it was indeed your intention to make everyone go “What the fuck?”, well done, you won hands down. If it wasn’t (and I daren’t ask what this was meant to signify in case the answer is something I don’t want to know), I suggest we consider this a piece of artwork that works on multiple levels depending on the perspective of the viewer or something like that. Congratulations either way. Excuse me, I need to book some more therapy sessions just thinking about this.

Discretionary award

This is where I keep my options open to recognise something that is not covered by any of the other categories. Over the years, this has covered a wide variety of achievement. I considered giving this to Three’s Company for Nonsense and Sensibility, for rewriting a play originally written for the conventional stage as a performance over Zoom (complete with gratuitous use of backgrounds, floating top hats and moustaches and audience interaction), and made to look like this is how the play was meant to be performed all along.

First place, however, is something very different. One side-effect of the new Vic’s Coppelia being postponed for seven months was that they produced a video whilst we were waiting, which I watched several times. The main reason? The musical score is AMAZING. Therefore, the discretionary award goes to James Atherton for the original music for Coppelia by the New Vic. The whole outdoor experience was one of the most memorable moments of the last year, but with all the attention going to the lovely outdoor set, let’s not forget the music that enhanced both the play and the video so much.

Best north-east production

qvnimtiyotu5mtq4With most of the north-east playing it safe in 2021 and coming late to the party, there’s again not much to choose from. (Haddock and Chips, if you’re wondering, is not eligible as I was part of that production, although it has been acclaimed in other end-of-year roundups here and here. Incidentally, I don’t rank productions I was in against other productions – I find when you’re involved from the outset it’s too different an experience to make a meaningful comparison.) Out of the ones on offer, my pick is, again, something not everyone would accept as a north-east production, with it being a joint production and rehearsing taking place a long way from Newcastle. However, Scarborough is sort-of north east and the set was designed with Live Theatre is mind, so I’m counting it. Best north-east production goes to The Offing, which came close in a couple of categories up to now, but was clearly the best all-rounder. Strong adaptation of a good book with a good directorial vision executed well with some fine acting from the ensemble of three. And – crucially – it was kept accessible to a wide audience rather than expect everyone to already know the story. Lots of people liked this, so did I, and it earns a convincing lead for the best play on offer in the region this year.

Best low-budget/fringe production

Now we’re on to the big two. Remember, with fringe theatre taking up so much of my viewing, the winner of this category often goes on to win best production.

There are plenty of plays in the running for second place here, but in the end, weighing things up, I think I shall award this to Sweet Productions for There’s a Ghost in my House. It’s a crowded field, but the combination of the staging, Emily Carding’s performance, a decent script and managing to avoid any of the notable pitfalls pushes this play ahead of the others.

The winner, however, wins on a simple concept executed brilliantly:

Yes, the winner of best solo play goes on to win best low-budget/fringe production: Sinatra: Raw. There’s really no substitute for the experience of getting something different to what you expected and that different thing turning out to be wonderful. Richard Shelton has a bit of luck on his side here, in that the only reason I saw this was because I couldn’t get a ticket for anything else. But many of the best plays I’ve seen were my second or third choice because my preferred play was sold out, so it’s fitting that we take this to the extreme and the best play turns out to be my last and only choice. That is the Edinburgh Fringe at its best.

Best production

And we end with the big one. Across everything I’ve seen in the north-east, fringe circuit or elsewhere, factoring in everything, which one do I rate the most.

In second place, it’s Sinatra: Raw. This was the only play this year to get an Ike Award (my equivalent to five stars) and was in a strong position to win this, for all the reasons given above. However, unlike best low-budget/fringe, where doing something different is encouraged and crossovers from other formats are commonplace, with best production, I put more weight into wide audience appeal and look more for something firmly in the theatre camp.

Which means, best production of 2021 is …

Congratulation to the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Live Theatre. In the end, it’s the wide audience appeal that’s the clincher for The Offing. I know there’s less competition than a normal year, but this was the ideal choice for a welcome back to theatre. Much of the glory goes to Paul Robinson here for realising how ideal this would adapt to the stage and making it happen, but this is very much a team effort involving cast, script writer, set designer, lighting, music, and probably many other things I haven’t thought of all working together for the top spot.

And that’s 2021 wrapped up. If anyone who’s won a category in 2020 or 2021 thinks it was too easy, at some point I intend to come up with the originally promised list of overall winners for 2020-2021. I think I’ve roughly seen as many plays over those two years as I see in a typical year, so that can carry the same weight. But again, everybody who’s put on anything this year has been a star. Everyone I’ve seen who’s put on a play this year has earned my respect, and I look forward to seeing what you embark on next.I think I’ve seen evenough

Correction: This post originally credited Heather Rose-Andrews as the writer of Jekyll and Hyde. That was in fact J D Henshaw, although it was written specifically for her to play.

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