Chris Neville-Smith’s 2022 awards

So that’s the last of the 2022 plays seen, which leaves just one thing to do*, which is my annual “best of” list. This is always the most interesting bit of my coverage; in a normal review, it is always tempting to say “didn’t they all do well”, but when you’re choosing a winner, you can’t do that. There can only be one winner, and this forces me to decide whose achievements deserve the most recognition.

* It is not my last thing to do, I still have one review to write and an Edinburgh Fringe roundup to complete. But let’s forget about that for now.

After two years of limited theatre, where I had to scale down the list of awards to something that could be kept meaningful, we are back to the full list. Join me between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day as I look back on the best of what I saw this year.

Best New Writing:

We start with one of the major categories. This award is on the strength of the script. Some plays are great because of who’s performing it, but to win here it should be possible for a new set of competent actors to pick it up and do something equally good. We’ve got a very competitive shortlist.

In third place, it’s 0.0031% – Plastic and Chicken Bones. It’s debatable whether Malcolm Galea’s script truly counts as a play or just storytelling, but what storytelling it is. It’s a very cleverly-written story about a time traveller who is sent from the future to inhabit the bodies of past inhabitants to erase nuclear attacks out of history – but is the all-powerful supercomputer who sends Dryskoll on these missions really as wise and benevolent as she claims.

In second place, it’s The Land of Lost Content. Henry Madd’s was one of two memory plays I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this one made you really feel it. Centred around his friendship with Judd in a deprived rural town, you know how deep their friendship runs because they have been through so much together, as have their closest friends. And that makes it all the more tragic. Everybody close to him has come off badly one way or the other: one lost to suicide, one turning to drink, and most heartbreaking: his teenage girlfriends who cares for him more than anything in the world trying to cover up that’s she’s with a wife-beater. Do be on the lookout for this – but bring hankies.

st108510But, in spite of the very strong competition, there could only be one winner, and that is Samuel Bailey with Sorry You’re Not a Winner. With so much of new writing platforming the voices of the angry writers seeking to change the world, I think it’s great the Papatango made a change to identify someone who writes with such compassion, and seeks to find the best in the people, especially those who society writes off the most. To the outside observer, Liam and Fletch are just a pair of chavs. Liam, however, is about to start a life-changing course at Oxford University, whilst Fletch is about to spend a long time in prison. Fletch is clearly someone who never stood a chance in life, but in spite of Liam’s good intentions, his new life is dragging him away from his oldest and closest friendship. There are some many ups and downs in the play, and even Liam is not immune from the expectations of class – and most cleverly of all, the ending that would normally have been written of as a contrived coincidence is done well. I really hope this comes back either revived by Paines Plough or a new company, because compassion at this level seems to be in short supply.

Best north east low-budget/fringe/amateur production:

This is a recent category introduced to the awards, thanks in a large part to the arrival of Alphabetti Theatre and the small-scale productions that came with it. The small-scale productions at Live Theatre and Northern Stage are also eligible, but it is only with the arrival of The Laurels in Whitley Bay that we suddenly have a properly competitive category.

It was a pretty close call between third and second place. In third place, I’m giving this to Alphabetti Theatre’s revival of Sugar Baby. In principle, this is a thriller about Marc who is caught up in loan shark Oggy’s bitter power-struggle, but it’s set in the same suburb of Cardiff and everybody seemingly went to school together, making it a rather awkward comedy thriller. Alphabetti Theatre took to this well, with slick staging and simple stylish projections making this a highlight of the year.

In the end, the tie-breaker between second and third comes down to what is the most north east. So second place goes to the premiere of Antichristmas at The Laurels. Similar to Sugar Baby, this could be a horror story, but set in Blyth where the Grand Dark Lord Lucifer can be mistaken for a pissed-up bloke dressed up as Father Christmas talking shite makes it a festive comedy horror, with a showdown set up for a final boss battle. This only ran for a week on a shoestring budget, hope it gets a bigger audience next year.

gerry-and-sewell-at-laurels-in-whitley-bayBut the clear winner of this category is Gerry and Sewell, the flagship production of The Laurels used to launch the venue. It is fair to say that one of the reasons this play sold extremely well is the popularity of plays about Newcastle United, but there’s a lot more to it that that. Jonathan Tulloch’s book was ground-breaking for its day for noticing the difference between working class and underclass. Jamie Eastlake had to wait a long time for this after Pilot Theatre did their own adaptation (which was also excellent), but this version managed to capture the same spirit of the book with a completely different vision on stage. After so many Covid-related woes delaying the proper launch of the venue, this couldn’t have been a better start, and marks 2022 as the arrival of a new major venue in the north east.

Most promising debut

First, a reminder of the rules here. It’s not an exact science, but this is for an act that is new to the environment it’s performing under. I didn’t count Gerry Sewell as a debut because Jamie Eastlake already had an extensive track record from theatre N16 days in London. Here, I’m picking two acts which are new to the uniquely competitive environments of Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe.

Second place was a play that I thought, whilst not perfect, was a decent first showing from someone making a first foray into the Edinburgh Fringe. Edinburgh Fringe is, of course, highly competitive, and you would typically need a fair amount of experience elsewhere to be competitive at Edinburgh – so far an 18-year-old’s script to be competitive on a first go is exceptional. Jaz Skingle’s Ghost Therapy was a lot of fun, set in a world where Dr. Soul is conducting the therapy – and by “ghost” therapy we mean therapy for other ghosts. It starts with Caspar’s number 1 fan who is somehow even more annoying, and goes on from there. Particularly impressive is that even though this missed the deadline for the paper programme – something that is traditionally viewed as the kiss of death – this play got a decent audience from social media marketing alone. An excellent start here. (Scroll to 5th August in Edinburgh Fringe Live Coverage.)

3c3981679eed653edd8eab01ab10e72f7638ef482e5b8ab8488d033a8ee1fd33-rimg-w1024-h1024-gmirThe winner is someone I had previously heard of, but only through Greater Manchester Fringe grapevines. The Formidable Lizzie Boone did very well at that fringe. I was curious as to how a play which covers both going to therapy and burlesque would work; in the end, the burlesque was only an incidental part of the story though. The main story was coming back from the bring after a lifetime of being used, abused, and making the mistake of living down to expectations. But this award is not concerned with what was done this year (great though it was) but what is means for the future, and here, Selina Helliwell has shown just how good her character development is. Even when Lizzie does the most awful things in her life, you always understand why. Definitely one to watch here.

Most persuasive play:

This is a recent category for a recognition of political theatre. However, a lot of these prizes amount to little more than whichever play most validates the views of the judges. I want something different, and I’m looking for something than wins me over on either an issue I’d never heard of, or hadn’t really thought about, or (if you’re really good at this) makes me change my mind.

In second place, it’s debatable whether this actually counts as a play. How I Learned What I Learned, performed this year by Saints and Poet’s Theater, is basically the memoirs of playwright August Wilson, who grew up as a black man when Jim Crow segregation was still in place. Surprisingly, not that much of that monologue was actually about racism, with far more about life that goes on in the meantime. What clinches the runner-up spot in this award, however, isn’t the big thing about racism in 1960s Pittsburgh – I’m pretty sure everyone watching already agreed Jim Crow laws were bad – but the petty things. Why get so angry over a matter as trivial as a bank cashier refusing to hand an empty envelope? There is a good reason why. (Scroll to August 29th, 8.00 p.m., in Edinburgh Fringe Live Coverage.)

ric-renton-who-wrote-one-off-as-shepherd.-photo-by-von-fox-promotionsFirst place and second place are really only separated by what can be considered a play; the winner, One Off, certainly counts as a play. Unlike the runner-up, which focused on an issue in a way I hadn’t previously considered, this was something I had no idea was going on, and on my own doorstep too. Ric Renton’s play is about his own experiences in Durham Prison during the brief period it was a category A Prison. Gone are the days of free-for-all prisoner beatings, but there was still an absurdly high suicide rate that, it seemed, everybody just shrugged over. But if you think it’s hardened criminals getting their just desserts, this play does more than enough to put you right. North-east theatres often forget the rule of “Show, don’t tell”: this time, Live Theatre (in association with Paines Plough) gets it right.

Best adaptation:

Adaptations is a funny one. New writing departments shun adaptations on open calls, and yet the best adaptations show as much originality as the stories they are based on. The same theatres are happy to put adaptations on their main stages, but half the time the adaptation misses the point of the original, usually in inexplicable ways. However, in the end this was quite a congested category with a lot to choose from. As a reminder of the rules, Blackeyed Theatre’s Jekyll and Hyde, The National Theatre’s Curious Incident and Pilot Theatre’s Noughts and Crosses are not eligible this year, as plays are only eligible in the year I first saw them.

In third place is Despite the Monkey’s tech-heavy adaptation of Beast in the Jungle. This was most notable for the highly ambitious technical vision, but right now we’re looking at the script. Henry James’s story of a man who spends his whole time on earth hiding from life and love in fear of an upcoming catastrophe is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, if not more.

It was quite a close call between second and first place. In second, it’s Gerry and Sewell, but in terms of the most ambitious concept it was the clear winner. What The Laurels’ adaptation does which the more naturalistic Pilot Theatre version didn’t was have a third actor known as “Tyneside”, sometimes narrator, sometimes the supporting characters, and sometimes just a sinister clown watching the action. This was perhaps the biggest gamble of everything I’d seen this year – I honestly don’t know how you could know if this was going to work except show it to an audience and hope for the best – but it paid off well.

adriftPipping The Laurels at the post, however, is Box Tale Soup with Gulliver. Husband-and-wife team of Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers have developed a puppetry-heavy format over years, from gentle period drama of Northanger Abbey to the gothic horror of Great Grimm Tales, which has been a consistently good standard, and this year they’ve put together everything they know to produce their best performance yet. Crucially, they get what the Jonathan Swift’s book is really about: not just a fantastic story of miniature people and giant people, but also a political satire drawing parallels to every act of prejudice, self-interest and cruelty of contemporary society, both then and now. So many adaptations fall foul of trying to shoehorn in modern political messages; sometimes, however, the original messages are the best.

Most admirable behaviour:

This was previously known as the “Sporting behaviour award”, which was intended to be a light-hearted one to recognise artists who had gone out of their way to support others. Sadly, I’ve been forced to renamed this to something more serious because the ongoing backdrop of events over the last three years has been anything but light-hearted. There has been scandal after scandal involving people in positions of power abusing people they have power over, sexually or otherwise. The arts media is finally wising up to this, but so far the arts industry is still fucking useless. In my opinion, they are in a massive state of denial; and with a few honourable exceptions, they are telling themselves it’s the fault of the Bad People who are Over There – and commissioning plays saying this sort of thing is bad is an acceptable substitute for taking any responsibility for what’s happening on your doorstep. (A similarly shambolic track record applies to racism.)

But the one bit of hope emerging from all of this is the number of people speaking out. It is for this reason I am using this category to applaud all of the whistleblowers, but especially to Lucy Ellinson, Xavier de Sousa, Maddy Costa and Paul Paschal. They worked with Chris Goode, who now appears to have been a serial abuser of young men in his care. These four were witnesses rather than victims (and according to their accounts it was mostly reasons to be suspicious rather than witnessing any abuse first-hand – I encourage you to read their own accounts here); nevertheless, it is important that witnesses who speak up are supported. As we saw with Roman Polanski, there’s a lot of people out there who mistake great art for impeccable moral character – and unfortunately, the normal responsible is to double down on that mistake when called out. Some of them use their power and influence to protect abusers from accountability; and when justice finally catches, most them slink away and pretend they have no responsibility.

I suspect we are going to have a lot of this in the future: people who realise they’ve been led astray and manipulated into complicity with an abuser. What’s important is whether these people accept they made a mistake and try to put things right, or take the easy option and shrug. I will be writing more about Chris Goode when I have the time – I really hope this one is the wake-up call where all others failed – but in the meantime, I urge everyone to show forgiveness for the people who do the right thing. Vilify people for past mistakes, and everybody loses.

Least admirable behaviour:

If Chris Goode’s whistleblowers did the most admirable behaviour from 2022, one might think the least admirable behaviour would go to Chris Goode himself. I, however, had a rule of not kicking artists when they’re down, however much they deserve it. Chris Goode, of course, is dead, but even where other abusers have been exposed, it’s clear the game is up.

So instead I’m looking at another incident from 2022. Nothing to do with abuse, thank goodness, but that’s no excuse. I had so much respect for The Warren leading the way in 2020 for doing live performance when all else considered it impossible, so it is so disappointing to see the news that they weren’t paying artists and staff what they were promised. It is not clear whether this was shoddy financial management or something more fundamental – and if the end of this saga was pulling out of Brighton Fringe 2022, saying sorry, and aiming to put things right, I would have let this go. Unfortunately, subsequent events suggest they’re not really sorry. I am hearing a lot of things off the record that I’m holding off reporting without some more fact-checking, but what we do know for certain is that the ran a parallel festival, “The EA in May”, in their one permanent venue like nothing had happened.

The Warren was a valuable part of Brighton Fringe. They are not beyond redemption yet, and I still hope some sort of pop-up venue can return after lessons have been learned. At the moment, they don’t seem to be learning lessons. I would love to be proven wrong about this, but my hopes are fading very quickly.

(Footnote: one thing that has left this category is the Scotsman’s fringe reviewing team. This year, I’m happy to say they behaved, and no-one made a tit of themselves this year. I do actually have quite good relations with Brian Ferguson now. Please keep it this way – I’m picking enough fights elsewhere.)

Play that deserved better:

Also known as the “Well, I liked it” award. Reviews and awards is a funny business. There’s an old saying that you sometimes get more than you deserve, and you sometimes get less then you deserve – but you never get what you deserve. And, of course, reviewers and judges aren’t a monolith and have their own opinions. This year, it was most noticeable for me in the Buxton Fringe awards, where the nominations in theatre were almost completely different from what I rated as the front runners.

292960783_1131511657431165_3705541408522854738_nThere was nothing amongst the nominees I particularly disliked, but I do think Beast in the Jungle was underrated. I was expected this one to walk it, but the reviews I have found seem very much spilt down the middle, and I don’t understand why. Adapting this particular Henry James story for the modern day seemed like a safe enough bet to me. The technical extravaganza was the big gamble, but the proceeded fine without a hitch. The only thing I can find close to a tangible criticism is that the technical effects were overwhelming. And sure, that concept isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but I don’t understand why you’d make a big deal out of a show that was specifically advertised around this. Maybe they just weren’t lucky enough to line up the performances with the audience who would appreciate this the most. All I know is that I think this deserved to be rated more highly than it did.

Best collaborative work:

If Best New Writing is awarded on the creative merits of the writer, this is awarded on the creative merits of the actors. There can be a script which the ensemble started off from, but it’s down to the collective creative efforts of the ensemble than just a writer and/or director telling them what to do. I’ve not seen many devised plays this year, so this will be a shorter list then normal, but there’s still some good entries.

In second place it’s Nyctophilia. Might not be the most polished piece of devised theatre, but certainly one of the boldest and most innovative. A series of vaguely related folklore tales taking place overnight, Haywire Theatre originally intended to set this entirely in the pitch black; in the end, there were a few appearances of light, but that added to it. I gather they were a bit wary about people still being able to vaguely make out what’s being acted on stage, but I liked this effect: sort of audio drama, but still some vague visual cues as to what’s going on. This deserves further runs.

The clear winner of this category, however, has to be Akimbo Theatre with No One. It’s a sort-of retelling of The Invisible Man that keeps the central theme of vengeful Griffin assisted by the impressionable Marvel, but a heavily altered story where Marvel gets a career as a magician and Mia forms a messaging-based romance with Griffin. What stands out, however, this the superb physical theatre that this five-strong ensemble can do, from conventional naturalistic scenes, to complex fight sequences, and even re-runs of the same scene with and without an invisible man steering the events. Bags of talent here, and a lot to look forward to, with this play and surely future plays too.

Funniest moment:

This is for funniest moment in theatre, otherwise this is would be dominated by comedy. Nevertheless, I’d like to give a special mention to Finlay and Joe’s Perpetual Hype Machine, about a machine that automates sketch generation, before turning sentient and taking over the world – as these things always do. The funniest moment takes place before that, however, with their dance at the beginning – interrupted by the phrases every fringe performer related to. “Are you still working at the supermarket? I’ve got promoted”; and “Still living with your mum? I’ve just bought a house” and my favourite: “Are you still single? So am I? However, I’m more attractive than you”. I rather enjoyed the show as a whole: family friendly, with a fair helping of nerd humour. (Scroll to August 14th, 10.30 a.m., in Edinburgh Fringe Live Coverage.)

02-13-2022-143237-5039For theatre, I’m giving this to Moral Panic. This was an excellent play and would have made more appearances in this list were it not for some very tough competition. However, I must give credit for the opening, as you walk into the theatre: film censor Charles (complete with prim pencil moustache) is watching a video nasty, furiously scribbling down notes as he watches something unspeakable. We find out later this is more likely to be something to do with blasphemy or sacrilege than any blood or guts. This sets up the rest of the play perfectly for the arrival of the wicked hedonistic Veronica who dresses provocatively, doesn’t see a problem with half the stuff, and probably hasn’t even been baptised. It’s a great play for more reasons than the funny opening, but this is what gets the play on the list.

Tearjerker moment:

Both of the plays listed here have already been mentioned in the coverage, but it’s worth giving these achievements here. In second place is a moment from the first scene of, Sorry You’re Not a Winner. It’s the final day Liam and Fletch spend together before Liam goes to university, and it’s finally dawning on Fletch that he’s being left behind. What seemed at first glance to be an unpleasant character opens up and shows his vulnerability. He comes along with a far-fetched madcap scheme where he joins Liam in Oxford. And then an even absurder scheme where Liam doesn’t go to Oxford after all because it was only about proving a point that he could if he wanted to. Of course none of this is goes to happen. As for what happens instead – well, you’ll have to watch and see.

But for the really heart-wrenching moment you’ve got to see the ending of The Land of Lost Content. There are two halves to this. I’ve already mention that Henry’s teenage girlfriend is now with a wife-beater, and she’s trying and failing to pretend everything’s fine because she doesn’t want him worrying about her. The other half come before this chronologically but reveal later: when Henry himself is about to end his life, she is the one who stops him going through with it. She saved him; he can’t save her. Bring a lot of hankies.

Most effective staging:

An important reminder for this award: this is for most effective staging, not biggest and flashiest staging. Tech capabilities in particular have advanced a lot on the fringe scene, but it’s still nothing compared to what comes as standard in venues such as Newcastle Theatre Royal, Sunderland Empire, and any West End Theatre. However, that’s not what I’m after – I’m after staging that enhances the performance the most for what the production has available to work with. Some cleverly deployed effects in a shoestring budget production can beat big budget effects in a big budget production, and that’s precisely what happened here.

In third place, it’s Live Theatre with One Off. Ric Renton’s script, I understand, was originally written with little thought as to how it would be staged, but Verity Quinn’s concept of of three plain rectangular blocks to represent three adjoining cells worked a treat. It also made impressive use of areas of the building normally behind the set and out of view. Ric Renton’s script was strong enough to work with pretty much any staging decision, but this setting made a good concept better.

Second place goes to One Four One Collective with The Huns. This, again, is a production that I have a lot of praise for way beyond the staging, but it was one small but important bit of staging that hols the whole thing together. The play is set round a conference call from hell, where there has been a disastrous theft of business critical laptops, and everybody is so obviously manoeuvring to protect themselves and blame someone else (and yes, I’ve been on these sort of conference calls). This might not look that flashy, but I’ve done enough technical work to know how difficult it is to do this reliable and how badly it backfires if it goes wrong. Which is fitting, seeing as the office this is set in has nothing working properly because of people who couldn’t be bothered with reliability. Consider this a small token of appreciation for a play that deserves a lot.

b25ly21zoju2mgrkytqxlta0ywitndq2my05zjy0ltm1ymezyjhhyzgxodoyztfmytkwmi04zmriltq3zjktowm3oc0xzddkmguxyzg2njmBut first place comes out of nowhere. I knew Yes! Yes! UCS!, a musical set over the extraordinary “work-in” of the Glasgow shipyards, was touring small mostly non-traditional venues (Tyneside Irish Centre in my case), and normally I make allowances to forget about technical sophistication and just act. What this play manages to do, however, is bring along a set that takes projections for all sorts of different uses. It would have been a challenging enough job in a conventional theatre, so to set this up anywhere is truly impressive. And it wasn’t just technical achievement; it was also some of the most creative moving imagery I’ve seen on stage, outclassing many plays that make use of this on much larger budgets. All of this supports an informative intelligent depiction of the real-life struggle, but it pushes Townsend Theatre’s play from good theatre to outstanding theatre.

Best classic/revival/long-running play

This is going to be a short list this time. There weren’t many plays in this category I saw. Out of those I did see, Curious Incident is not eligible as I saw this before in a previous year, and A Doll’s House is not eligible as I was on the production team of that. (Incidentally, I couldn’t tell you where a play I was involved in would have ranked had I allowed it in. Watching a play be rehearsed again and again and again is a very different experience from seeing it fresh, and I wouldn’t know how to compare one to the other.)

In second place, it’s The People’s Theatre’s version of A Northern Odyssey. I never saw the premiere of this when it can to Live Theatre just over 10 years ago, but I heard good things about it and the script did not disappoint. What the People’s Theatre can do, though, is something most theatres can’t: expand from a small round-table cast to a big ensemble to create crowd scenes, and Cullercoats in the 19th century during the visit of artist Winslow Homer was perfect for this. I praised Breaking the Code for the same treatment in 2018, and once more it’s come up trumps.

Full disclosure: I have since joined the People’s Theatre, but I wrote the review for this play before I knew circumstances would lead to me joining.

sugar-baby-credit-benjamin-michael-smith-photography_standardBut the winner is at the other end of the scale, a solo play. I don’t know how much in common Alphabetti’s production of Sugar Baby compares to the original produced by Paines Plough, but whatever treatment they went for, they made it look like that was how it meant to be written all along. If it was a reinvention, well done, it worked. If it was a remount of the original, don’t apologise – you don’t need to keep chopping and changing plays if it was perfect the first time round. Either way, the theatre most into new writing wins in the category I’d least expect.

Most memorable line:

This is one of the novelty categories, but it always impressive me how much can be said by one line in the right place, and how the way that line is delivered. Lines I considered this year was “My mind goes to mustard” from Eva O’Connor’s sort-of self harm play “Mustard” (to difficult to explain, just see it), and the line “One Off” from the play of the same name – supposed to refer to a tragic one-off suicide, but said with such routine use it’s clear it’s anything but one off.

But the thing that really stuck in my mind was a line from The Twenty Seven Club. Part of Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival, this adaptation I fear has lost something important from the book. But even if the play as it stands didn’t quite work out, the moment I really liked was when Tel, played by Steve Byron, break some awful news at the end of the play. Because of the non-chronological nature of the script, we already know what it is: his daughter Emma’s mother has been killed in a car accident. So much power into two words “Something’s happened” that tells us just how bad this event is. I do hope we get another go of this play, because there is so much ground this play could cover about Emma’s subsequent escape into the world of Kurt Cobain.

Wholesome moment of the year:

New category, and a fun one – but with the most admirable category getting quite depressing, it’s time for something uplifting. These are things I haven’t mentioned on the blog before, but I will now.

In second place, it’s a particular performance of We Should Definitely Have More Dancing. I didn’t see this, but I knew Clara Darcy was performing her own story about getting and surviving a brain tumour. This went to the Edinburgh Fringe, and it just so happened that her 40th birthday was during her Edinburgh Fringe run. Nothing unusual in itself with having a birthday during Edinburgh Fringe (which applies to pretty much everyone born in August) – but this was a celebration of a 40th birthday that she might never have lived to see. That must have been a joyous hour for everyone.

ashley-paigeAnd first place goes to Paige Round and Ashley Sean-Cook (with a bit of help from Nick Lane). In spite of crowded competition, Blackeyed Theatre’s version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is my favourite, with a female character of Eleanor Laynon added into the story and made to look like she was there all along. The play deservedly came back for an encore run which finally took place last winter, and I saw it was again and it was as good as I remembered. But to top this all off, the actors playing Eleanor Laynon and her in-story husband Hastings have now got married for real. Although the in-story marriage falls apart, there were some very emotional moments toward the end, including the moment where Hastings set his wife free. The two work so well together, so it’s lovely news that it’s come to this. All together now … one, two, three … awwww.

Non-event of the year:

Another new novelty category. With everybody in the arts seemingly permanently angry and permanently online, this is a very gentle encouragement to always ask yourself the question: “Is it really that important?”

The inaurugal award goes jointly to Northern Broadsides and the silly customer who made a complaint to spark off Accentgate. You’re welcome to look this one up if you like, but there’s really nothing to it. So, Northern Broadsides did a tour of As You Like It, which was heavily branded as LGBTQ+ positive. If there’d been some stupid outrage in the Mail or the Spectator, we might have had a story, but it was even stupider than that. Instead, it was someone who complained that Shakespeare was being done in a regional accent. Now, I’m not really that interested in Shakespeare, but even I know that the original versions were probably done in whatever the working-class accent of the time was, with Received Pronunciation a convention adopted later by the Victorians. Regardless, there’s plenty of RP versions of Shakespeare around, and if you want that I must ask why you picked a company called Northern Broadsides.

But … the uproar over this got ridiculous. This wasn’t a hit piece from Julia Hartley-Brewer or James Delingpole, this complaint came from a nobody. The best argument I can make for Northern Broadsides responding the way it did was the possibility (as Barrie Rutter has been saying for years) that more powerful people hold the same regional prejudice. But the fire wasn’t directed at them, it was directed at a random prat who nobody was supporting, not even Quentin Letts. What point has been proven? Who has been won over? It finally died down after a long month, but next time, please, take no notice. We’ve all got better things to go.

Unexpected gem of the year:

There is a long-standing rule of fringe reviewing that you adjust your expectations based on what the artists you’re reviewing can realistically achieve. I have high expectations for a major well-resourced NPO, but for independent artists – particularly those starting out – starting out I factor in not getting everything right the first time. Occasionally, however, productions massively outperform their expectations. I’ve already mentioned both groups here, but they get a mention again.

In second place, Townsend Productions with Yes! Yes! UCS! Townsend Productions is a well-established group, but they still perform in non-traditional spaces which would normally cause me to rein in my expectations. As already mentioned in Most Effective Staging, I needn’t have done. What I haven’t mentioned yet, however, is the writing. Neil Gore’s script is a thoughtful and intelligent take on one of the most counter-intuitive industrial disputes in history. It very strongly follows the story from the perspective of the workers, but also provides context of just what the whole shipbuilding industry was up against. The staging was just one part of what was an excellent all-rounder.

cl8ja8lz200350jp2pzy9db1d-ghost-therapyAnd in first place, it’s Ghost Therapy. I’ve already mentioned the 18-year-old writer. Now, Jaz Skingle was part of a big team, and I don’t know what was her doing and what was someone else’s idea, but even taking this into account, it was a phenomenal achievement when it takes most of us years to get up to a competitive standard. One other small but notable detail is that this was registered too late for the paper programme. The conventional wisdom is that this is the kiss of death for ticket sales, but somehow Skingle and co got decent sales on social media marketing alone. Don’t know how they did it, but Jaz Skingle Productions seems to be on to something.

Best individual performance

This has been the difficult category in recent years because there’s been so much to choose from. I even considered making this into an article in its own right. In the end, due to time pressures, I’ve kept it in here, but I’m extending the list to six. So, briefly, here’s numbers 6 to 4:

  • Number 6: Rhys Anderson as @R3alAm3rican99 in Beg for Me. Superb depiction of a radicalised citizen (where “real American” means “massive Trump-supporting nutjob).
  • Number 5: Benny Ainsworth as Billy in Vermin. He wrote the part for himself and depicted an ordinary man who gives himself away as a psychopath who would do to humans what he does to animals were it not for the consequences.
  • Number 4: Anna Bolton as Bobo’s mother from We are the Best! A lot of praise went to the lead three young actors, and they were good, but it was this supporting role which really stuck out for me, of an eternal teenager who can’t get to grips with also being the mother of a real teenager.

For the top three, however, the performances go one step further and make themselves definitive to some or all of the production.

In third place, it’s Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow. Few people could have expected a subject of this play, refugees, to become so prominent so quickly this year, but by accident or design, Pilot Theatre became that topical. (Note to self: “few things are more notorious than the immigrant detention camps in Australia” hasn’t aged well.) Subhi’s friendship with girl on the outside Jimmie is one of many plot threads in the central character’s story, but it is the most poignant – and this can only work if you can feel how lonely Jimmie is. Mary Roubos does this in the opening minute of the play before she’s spoken a word with the way she wanders the stage, and the rest follows from there. All of the cast gave strong performances but Jimmie topped it.

In second place, it’s Johnny Tulloch as Craig in 1902. To be honest, I could have filled up this list with the cast of this play if I’d got carried away, because the acting throughout the cast was superb. However, Craig was the absolute lynchpin in this. The story revolves around a foolish transaction with a notorious loan shark. For much of the play, the situation escalates from what is assumed to be mutual animosity, until an unexpected act of kindness puts it to rest – or so we think. Fundamental to the play is that Craig isn’t that interested in money; he is far more interested in violence, and having got this close to what he wants, he’s not going to let it go now. And it is only through Nathan Scott-Dunn’s performance that the disastrous climax to the play can be believed.

FPGMhNWXIAIFQcFThe winner, however, goes up a another level still. The Laurels’ version of Gerry and Sewell might have been on a smaller scale, but the concept was far more adventurous, and it was all going to stand or fall on the performance of third character “Tyneside”. I have previously described this role as part narrator, part actor and part clown, but it’s difficult to explain in text. How were you supposed to explain such an impossibly abstract concept when this had never been performed before? Whatever the secret, Becky Clayburn got it, and turned this crazy vision into reality. I can think of few plays where so much is at stake from one person’s performance, but this is one of them. Congratulations Beck Clayburn for making this mad gamble pay off.

Disappointment of the year:

In general, I lay off entry-level writers who pen something not up to standard. If it’s mediocre, I’d rather point them in the right direction. If it crashed and burned, it benefits no-one to say so in public. And yet – and I’m not sure when this started – I’ve seen a good number of underwhelming plays from people who the cultural great and good are raving about.

This year, I was particularly disappointed by Girl in the Machine. I won’t name the group who performed this, because I have no problems with the performance itself. In fact, I assumed as I was watching it that this was an original work from a plainly ensemble who haven’t got the hang of writing: more specifically, it came across as an aspiring writer trying very hard to be Black Mirror. But I discovered, to my surprise, it wasn’t an aspiring writer, it was an established writer being commissioned by The Traverse with everyone raving about how ground-breaking it was. Sadly, I just can’t share the enthusiasm. The concept was decent enough had the tension been ramped up to a climax, but before than it felt to me little more like padding. The great and good at The Traverse call it profound and poetic – but I was left deciding that Charlie Brooker has nothing to fear.

Most bizarre moment:

Originally known as the “What the fuck?” award, named after the phrase that springs through my head when I see a winning entry. But it’s “What the fuck” in a good way. Contenders this year included:

  • How to live a Jellicle Life, featuring Linus Karp dressing up as a cat from Cats, but not the iconic 1980s musical but weird CGI film from 2019. He reveals that a “Jellicle” life is any sort of good life, which extends to pretty much everything. Except being James Corden.
  • Experiment Human, featuring two Monkions (aka Rosa and Maya from Hooky Productions), and they’re a bit like humans and bit like monkeys, but that are fascinated with our world and especially Benedict Cumberbatch, so they kidnap him … difficult to explain really. Anyway, this got the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence at Edinburgh Fringe so you’ll be able to ctach this at the Rotunda to see for yourself.
  • Famous Puppet Death Scenes, which is pretentious, but ironically pretentious. Prepare yourself for an hour of the most heartbreaking death scenes ever performed by puppets. (Spoiler: all of these famous scenes of puppet-based homicide are made up for purposes of the show.)

freddie20puppets-033But the most bizarre story of all has to be Potatohead. Bit like those Mr. Potato Head toys, except that Freddie Hayes is playing a life size potato. Also, it’s a retelling of The Faust, but with potatoes. Also, it reveals the true extent of Gary Lineker’s evilness. Also, this performance is the reason I used the phrase “sexy potato mode” in a review, something I never imagined I’d write. The award is for a bizarre moment rather than the whole play, which makes it difficult as it’s all bizarre. However, the craziest moment of all must be potato Charlotte’s visit to a depraved potato night club, where seven potatoes representing the seven deadly sins (or Elvis Presley). And I think I’ll leave it here because I’ve clearly already lost you. What I think we can be sure of is that this is clearly the most bizarre thing I saw this year.

Discretionary award:

As we approach the end, there’s time for this category, to recognise things that impressed me that don’t fall under any other category.

In second place is Room, based on a room of one’s own, for a concept I’ve never seen in theatre before. There are plenty of stage adaptations of stories, but Virginia Woolf’s famous text is not a story but an essay. A said at the time it was difficult to know how to rate it because I have no other stage adaptations of essays to compare it to – but since then, I’ve heard of a completely different adaptation of the same essay come to York Theatre Royal, which I annoyingly couldn’t get to. Maybe next time. In the meantime, recognition here for pioneering something different.

First place, however, goes to not one play but two: Vermin and An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe. I rated both of these highly, and so did a majority of reviews. But to get two highly rated shows at the same Brighton Fringe and same Edinburgh Fringe is virtually unheard of – and to do it from a company of three who do all the acting, writing and directing between them is phenomenal. On top of this, they started of in Brighton Fringe in the Laughing Horse venues, with next to nothing in the way of lighting, sound and scenery available, and relying on acting alone. A ridiculously talented thoroughly worth looking out for, because if they can achive all this in one year, who know what else they can achieve in future years.

Best solo play:

There were a lot of good solo plays I could pick from here. In order to narrow it does, I’m prioritising plays that suit the solo format the best, and those who haven’t been picked up elsewhere.

In third place, it’s Michelle Yim and Grist to the Mill Theatre with The Ballad of Mulan. Michelle Yim has already done a couple of plays about historical East Asian women but it is the mythological figure from Chinese legends that works the best. It’s billed as the undisneyfied version and it delivers; part depiction of middle-class society in ancient China where women are expected to do nice things, but mostly a war story, with tales of camaraderie through the ranks mixed in with the horrors of the battlefield.

In second place, I’m picking Ghislaine/Gabler. This time last year, the world was shocked when Jeffrey Epstein’s partner was revealed to be not an unwitting victim of his manipulation but a fully-fledged co-conspirator – but the mystery is why she did it. Kristin Winters gave an uncomfortably convincing depiction of a woman who’s convinced she’s done nothing wrong, covering both the screwed up childhood that may have made her how she is, and the experiences of some of the victims being groomed. Even the parallels with Hedda Gabler, which I was sceptical about, worked well. Worth watching – but know what you’re letting yourself in for.

keepersdaughter_timemachine_277f4f3179911fd9aaf13fc60e487fbaThe Keeper’s Daughter, however, wins hands down with The Time Machine. Solo plays usually means one person on stage, but one or more people operating the tech. This play however, true to the title, has the machine on stage, with all technical effects operated by Mark Finbow. And not simple effects either, but an intricate sound and lighting plot that would normally keep the tech team busy. The acting is also synced perfectly with the sound and lighting – something that is difficult to do well and disastrous to do badly – with heavy use also made of puppetry. And the story remains very faithful to the H.G. Wells original, both in story and with style, with a fitting extra chapter added of a visit to 2022. At the moment, there’s not future performances listed, but keep your eyes open. Surely it will do another round, and catch it when you have the chance.

Best north-east production

One important reminder of the rules here: these are for plays created in the north-east, not simply plays I saw in the north-east. Sorry You’re Not A Winner would have walked this had a performance in Northern Stage counted, that would have walked it, but we’re looking for something home-grown. (Productions created in the north-east but I saw elsewhere are eligible, but that didn’t happen this year.)

In third place, I had trouble deciding between Sugar Baby and We are the best! here. Both were pleasing play with slick production values. But whilst I allow fringe plays into the open category, I do give a bit more weight to plays with wide appeal, and that pushes We are the Best! ahead. I don’t know how much of this was in the original graphic novel, what was in the film, and what was in the adaptation, but there were a lot of innovative ideas in the play (including the wonderful goat sequence with Anna Bolton) that gave Jack Macnamara a good start at the helm of Live Theatre.

It was also a close run between first and second place. Gerry and Sewell was in second place but almost won. This might have run on a fraction of the resources of a main Live Theatre production, but there’s no question over wide audience appeal here. Thanks to the Newcastle United connections, it secured a sell-out run – apparently with lots of people who otherwise don’t go to the theatre – and came back for another run in the summer. In the end, it came down to some nit-picking over some plot points in act 2, but what a start for The Laurels.

oneoff_lowres-8But eeking ahead, best north-east production goes to One Off. Out of all the home grown plays this year, this was the strongest all-rounder. Ric Renton’s play raises awareness of an important issue without making it all about himself, it sustains interest throughout the play, the three inmates and one guard are all nuanced and believable characters, and Jack McNamara and his team stage the play in an innovative way turning a good play into an excellent one. Live’s best selling productions often come back for an encore, so if you didn’t catch this there’s hope yet.

Best low-budget/fringe production:

And here we are at least, the big two. To be honest, it is a very close run between the seven winners of Ike Awards. I’ve kept changing my mind, and I’ll probably change my mind again. But whilst I have some sort of decision, let’s run with that.

So, third place goes to Yes! Yes! UCS! Although this did not go on the fringe circuit, it was was a fine example of showing how much you can achieve in the most basic of venues. Anyone who is a regular to the small fringes knows that something as basic as a community hall can still host a great play if the script is strong enough, but this went further and showed just how much you can achieve if you bring your own set and equipment. If this tours any more, I highly recommend catching as an inspiration of what you can achieve on stage.

In second place, it’s the wonderful Land of Lost Content. I’ve been thinking about this play so much since I saw it. It is without a doubt the saddest play I saw of the year, but that is only made possible by such a warm portrayal of friendship in the face of deprivation. If there’s one change I would suggest to this, I felt that a two-hander pushed the capabilities of the performance to the limit; a third female actor might have opened up a bit more versatility. But I really hope this is not the last we have heard of this play, because it’s wonderful.

And the winner of best low-budget fringe is …

It wasn’t an easy choice, but I’m going for The Time Machine from The Keeper’s Daughter. This one, I think, best combined all the things that are great about the small stage – innovation and risk that bigger productions shy away from, an unconventional performance style that it’s tough to get mainstream audiences to buy in to, and a forma of staging that could only work with a small audience. Notably, although I saw this in a properly-equipped fringe venue, with all the tech running through the on-stage time machine this could have been performed anywhere, just like Yes! Yes! UCS. Surely this is going to be back at some point – I will be keeping an eye out for it when it does.

Best production:

And finally we reach this one. Many thanks to everyone who’s been following this between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, but now it’s time to draw to a close. Once again, this has come down to a rather arbitrary pick which I keep changing my mind on, but I must make a decision.

So, third place …

Saltire Sky’s 1902 was acclaimed as one of the greatest hits of 2021’s much-reduced Edinburgh Fringe, but it was only as I was writing up the review and noting all the good things about the play that I realised how highly this was going to be rated. The large cast of this play makes it debatable whether it can be counted as a fringe production, but it’s good enough to be competitive in the open category regardless. It’s a flexible production that can adapt to pretty much any space it’s given, but the superb characterisation of Nathan Scott-Dunn’s script is enough to put this into the top three of my highest accolade for the year.

And now for second place …

The runner up for best production of 2022 … is …

Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth with Sorry You’re Not a Winner. Samuel Bailey’s writing, I believe, is massively under-rated. There are plenty of plays written about disadvantaged and maligned groups, but Samuel Bailey was about to take a character from one of the most vilified sections of society, where everything negative stereotype is true – but you take one look at his lot and think “He doesn’t deserve this”. Together with some very intelligent comment about the seemingly unstoppable force of class devide, and the question of how you’re supposed to help sections of society everybody wants to stay away from, it’s a remarkable follow-up for the Papatango winner. Papatango may have underestimated what they’ve found.

And now, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for.

The winner of Best Production of 2022 …


It’s Box Tale Soup with Gulliver.

It was close, but in the end, I could have named this as either the winner or Best Fringe Production or Best Production overall. I gave it the latter category because, although Box Tale Soup are firm favourites at Edinburgh Fringe, they have a huge audience appeal that extends way beyond the fringe circuit and a tour of this was pretty much guaranteed before the Edinburgh run had even begun. At the end of the day, however, this is just as much recognition of a run of excellent productions as it is of this particular one. The adaptation of the Jonathan Swift novel was faithful, and rightly so, but the innovative style of staging and puppetry is something they can thoroughly claim as their own. It’s about time Box Tale Soup got the acclaim they deserve. And if you haven’t seen this yet – or anything else from their back catalogue – now is a good time to keep an eye out at your local theatre.

And that’s it. Thank you everyone who followed my blog throughout the year, and for those of you who were waiting for this, I admire your dedication. And may I take this opportunity to express my appreciation to all the performers who invited me to review their plays and encourage me to review in general. I certainly would not have persisted this long without.

And that’s a wrap on 2022. Now we begin with 2023.

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