So, with Christmas becoming the moment for my regular end-of-year awards, I thought Easter would be a good spot for my now annual review of Ike Awards from years gone by.
For the recap: during lockdown, I embarked on a project to backdate Ike Awards (my equivalent to five stars) for plays prior to spring 2017 when I started doing this. I went through years 2012 and 2016, and had intended to catch up all the way to the present, but by this point I decided I liked doing this as a retrospective, often having the chance to see where they play and/or group is now. So from 2017 onwards, I’ve been going forward one year at a time.
However, at least one Ike winner from 2018 knows she’s in the queue and is getting impatient, so let’s take a look at the greatest plays I saw from that year. And this was a good year.
I rarely review traditional amateur dramatics on this blog. That’s not because traditional amateur dramatics should be written off before you’ve seen in – indeed, some performances are damned good – but, if you’re going to confine yourselves to published scripts that already knows, it’s near-impossible to produce something that isn’t a worse version of a prior professional production. I, on the other hand, look for work that is different, or better, or both. The People’s Theatre have managed this by doing something that most professional theatres can’t: adding an ensemble to the cast. It’s quite common for musicals to have an ensemble but rare for conventional theatre – nevertheless, the People’s Theatre made it look like Hugh Whitmore’s play was written for a cast of twenty all along.
However, the clincher was the performance of David Jack as Alan Turing. I know I said that it’s near-impossible for an amateur group to be as good as the professional productions, but honestly, that was up there with the best performances of the fully professional actors. A common mistake I see amateur theatre make (the People’s is not immune from this themselves) is to think good acting mean remembering all the lines and charging through them word-perfect. Hugh Whitmore’s play is the classic it is because it define Alan Turing as a character so well, and David Jack understood every nuance written into the scripts and brought it to the fore.
Apologies, I’m now going to go on a small digression now, but there’s been an increasing discussion on whether Alan Turing was autistic. Many people think he was, but the response to that was to create The Imitation Game which I think did a massive disservice. I am increasingly coming to the view that the best way to write an autistic character is to write to a personality, not a disability. In Breaking the Code, the thing that resonated with me was Alan Turing’s naivety in the face of officialdom. The Imitation Game obliterated this completely and instead shoehorned in a bunch of stock autistic traits with no bearing to the story. Now, I don’t know which of the two portrayals is more historically accurate, but the latter film was notorious for playing fast and loose with the facts – and worse, countless critics thought this was fine. I don’t care how many sensitivity readers were employed or how many organisations were consulted, but Hugh Whitmore’s play was the vastly superior portrayal. And the People’s Theatre couldn’t have done it more justice.
Now, this is a production most of you will have heard of. When I first heard of it, it was one of the more prominent acts at the Vault Festival 2017, with the sight of of dapper gentlemen and flappers queueing up for the Guild of Misrule’s immersive performance. The bad news was that this was so popular, the entire six-week run was virtually sold out before the festival started. But fear not, the Vault said. It will be back for another four weeks in June for those who missed out. And then it got extended, and extended, and extended again, and with Immersive Gatsby still running whilst Vault 2018 was on, I thought I may as well check was this was about. Correctly guessing that the note about 1920s outfits being optional came with an unwritten catch that they will take the piss out of you if you are anachronistically attired, I packed my dinner jacket, expecting novelty value but not much more.
What no-one told me about, however, was the mutli-threaded story format. The guests to Gatsby’s party are continually split up and joined together in various main halls, office visits, private parties, and more. It is possible to follow the novel’s narrator throughout the play and follow the identical sequence of events to the F Scott Fitzgerald story. But it’s a lot more likely you will see new events between the other characters consistent with the story and filling in the gaps for when the Jay Carraway wasn’t around. It was only when I saw this for a second time the year after (during a brief return to York) when I realised just how well this was crafted – I barely saw any of Gatsby or Daisy, but there were just enough mentions of the main story to keep us up to date when we’re taken to the moment they meet again. It’s one thing to have a play that interacts with the audience, but to make such a complex multi-pathed story work is phenomenal.
And it just goes on and on and now. Now they’ve moved from Gatsby’s “Drug Store” in Waterloo to Gatsby’s Mansion in the West End, and Jay Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Jordan Baker, Tom & Daisy Buchanan and Tom and Myrtle Wilson are joined by party girl Lucielle Mckie and “associate” (and debt collector) Rosy Robinson. Sadly, there was a sour note in this success story, being the odd shitty person in the audience apparently using the immersive format as an excuse for groping – and so an innovative lesson in immersive theatre has been accompanied by a sobering lesson in safeguarding. But it’s moment like this that make this all worthwhile: watching a play I saw in the early days deservedly go on to great things.
And now, a very rare occurrence: a theatre company getting an Ike Award twice. The previous Ike Award went to Frankenstein, one of two excellent plays from the team of John Ginman and Eliot Giuralarocca that rediscovered the lost arts of doing all the sound of stage. This one, however, marked the first of many plays from Nick Lane who has almost made himself resident writer for Blackeyed Theatre. I saw this play again earlier this year and it was just as good as I remembered it. Lane did an excellent job bringing Robert Louis Stevenson’s story to the stage in such a compelling yet accessible format, but the master touch was adding a completely new character to the story. Eleanor Laynon the wife of Hastings, becomes Dr. Jekyll’s greatest supporter in his work, but far from the stock Hammer House trope of the women who screams when she sees the monster, she is intelligent, capable and driven – just sadly not aware of of the darker side of Jekyll’s work until it’s too late to go back.
If David Jack’s performance was definitive to People’s version of Breaking the Code, Paige Round was definitive to Blackeyed Theatre’s version of Jekyll and Hyde. The gamble of the extra character would have stood or fallen on who played here, but she got it down to a tee. It’s not entirely her achievement – this, I understand, was the third outing of his play, albeit the first to have toured the nation so extensively. As such, it’s hard to know what is her achievement and what was the doing of her predecessors, but whatever she inherited and whatever was her own touch, her performance was superb. As a result, Blackeyed Theatre joins Sparkle and Dark in a very exclusive club.
Here, however, is a completely different experience that makes it all worthwhile. Unlike everything else on this list, I’d never heard of this play, or the theatre company, or the writers. The only reason I saw this – as it often the case at the Edinburgh Fringe – was what I call a “lucky dip”. I had a gap in my schedule to see a play, so I picked a play I liked that sound of that was coming up in the venue I happened to already be at – and my god, this was an outstanding play that came out of nowhere. Vivian Strong mas a teenager whose death at the hands of a trigger-happy policeman sparked a notorious race riot. The play is in story format told by told people. One is Vivian’s estranged and cynical father, wheeling and dealing and getting by in a world where he’s not always welcome. A particularly memorable line I remember from the play is when he discovered, in his words, the Poles in America are “the black people of the white people”. But Vivian … she’s just a kid. She doesn’t care about racial politics or civil rights movements, she just wants to enjoy life and sees life like her jazz music where no-one cares if you’re black or white. Sadly, people who are close to her are mixed up in things that means it can’t be so.
It is true that after my glowing review, this show with its sparse audience was suddenly sold out for every performance – however, I don’t think I can claim credit for that. Contrary to popular mythology, even the most influential critics don’t have the power to make or break shows any more. I spoke to other people who saw the early performances who also thought it was great, and the reason for the box office success was almost certainly word of mouth – my glowing review (and the numerous other glowing reviews that followed in the few days after) was almost certainly an effect rather than a cause. But it was thoroughly deserved.
The bad news is that this was an American production touring to Edinburgh, so whilst there’s been a good number of opportunities to see this Stateside, there’s been no subsequent chances to see this here. It was an intelligent look at life on the receiving end at the height of racial tensions in 20th century America, but – unlike so many other plays that lose sight of this – it tells the story with the greatest humanity.
And what do you know? After Vivian’s Music, 1969 a second Ike winner within 24 hours. This time, it was someone I’d heard of. Caroline Burns Cooke had previously done And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet about the Kerry Babies scandal in 1980s Ireland, when the Catholic Church was still very powerful, but it won praise for its nuance and trying to understand why such a thing could happen. It’s this style that’s applied to a play on Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, and works so well. What in the world would make a mother force a perfectly heathy child to live the life of an invalid in order to get a bit of attention at the hospital. Answer: because hospital visits are the only part of the life which have any order. The kindness she receives when her daughter’s sick is completely absent from the rest of her life. And it’s not like Dee Dee suddenly wakes up one day and thinks it would be great if everyone thought her daughter Gypsy was at death’s door – it’s a terrifyingly convincing slippery slope.
Again, Burns Cooke does not divide her story into cartoon heroes and pantomime villains, or any sort of heroes or villains. In fact, the story questions whether it is really all Dee Dee’s fault – might not the blame be shared by the fundraisers feeling good about raising so much money for the sick kiddie? When things got suspicious, were people not more comfortable going along with the illusion than asking difficult questions? Understanding why a bad things happens is not the same as excusing it, thought, and the devastating effect it has on Gypsy is only matched by the desperate measure she takes to escape. Caroline Burns Cooke is currently touring with her next play, Testament of Yootha, a biopic of Yootha Joyce which is against insightful and full of nuance, but I hope this one isn’t forgotten, as Proxy was outstanding.
And one extra …
When I started off doing these articles, I backdated the Ike Award to the early plays I reviewed before I started doing this. I didn’t intend to do this for 2018 onwards when I was giving them out with the reviews. However, I’m going to make one exception. There is a play that’s stuck in my mind ever since I saw it, and it’s Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho. On the surface, it’s a cabaret show fronted by the Irony Lady (Matt Tedford) after she unexpectedly quit as Prime Minister and instead became a gay nightclub hostess, with two gay miners as her backing. What the play is really about, however, is the politics around the introduction of the notorious Section 28.
I loved this the first time round, but the reason this went up in my estimation further is the current trend of dividing history into cartoon heroes and pantomime villains I was talking about earlier. One thing this play does so well is skewer the hysteria over “gay propaganda” in the 1980s, but the other thing is does is challenge the idea that this was the doing of one person. Gay nightclub hostess even reminisces at the end about what it would have been like (as in our timeline) to be either the woman who saved Britain or the woman who ruined it depending on who you talk to. So much of theatre today is engaging in a pointless battle to spin history to fit preferred modern narratives, but plays like this offer more – as well as being very very funny.
And that winds up 2018. Join me in Easter 2023 for the Ike Awards 2019 Hall of Fame.