The Prince and the Pauper: all hail Mary!

Gareth Cassidy as Princess Mary

Already a surefire hit for a New Vic Christmas production, the re-instatement of one historical character is a show-stealer.

Before everything got interrupted by the event, I had a a backlog of reviews, which I decided to clear as and when the respective theatres starting moving back to life. First off the mark is the New Vic, so let’s catch up on their Christmas production back in January. Before The Event. (Remember, don’t think about The Event.)

This is common knowledge to the New Vic regulars, but for the rest of my followers, the New Vic has one of the most lucrative Christmas seasons around. Whilst most pantos will settle for a run of six weeks or so, the New Vic runs for almost three months, due in a large part to attracting every school in Staffordshire (more or less). And with good reason too: artistic director Theresa Heskins has made this one of her top specialities. Last year’s Wind in the Willows showed what she is capable of producing (made even more impressive by a minor ensemble actor standing in for Mr. Toad at the last moment and making it look like the part had been written for him all along), and this year it’s the turn of the classic tale The Prince and the Pauper.

Mark Twain, best known for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, wrote this tale as a foray into “historical fiction” with his fictionalised story of boy king Edward VI and a street child he trades places with. However, being American, Mr Twain wasn’t that clued up on British Tudor history, whilst on this side of the pond every child has Divorced Behead Died etc. drilled in history lessons. As a result, some of the historical characters are people who we Brits neither recognise nor care about, whilst some better-known figures don’t really feature – and this is where Theresa Heskins takes the opportunity to make her mark. Out go a few stuffy Palace officials, and in come Princesses Mary and Elizabeth – and it’s future Mary who steals the show.

Continue reading

The Wind in the Willows: The Panto!

It’s another one! An actual review of an actual live performance, and this time I don’t have to travel to Brighton for it! Theatre is, as you have probably gathered by now, thin on the ground. Although performances are now permitted, most theatres show little enthusiasm for either outdoor performances or indoor socially distanced performance, preferring instead to do online work. However, Middlesbrough Council has opted to buck the trend, with a few performances scheduled in outdoor venues they own. Unlike The Warren Outdoors diving straight into two months of back-to-back performances, Middlesbrough Council is being cautious; it only scheduled three performances, but judging how well tickets sold and how well-received the performances have been so far, it looks like they could have been a lot bolder. Indeed, The Wind in the Willows was supposed to be a single performance, but thanks to popular demand a second one was quickly added.

And so, I find myself giving the verdict for Immersion Theatre’s adaptation. The last adaptation I saw was the New Vic’s, which I liked for its drift between summer whimsy and a properly scary version of the Wild Woods. This version, I quickly discovered, goes for panto mode from start to finish. Now, I have previously been sniffy about “panto-quality humour”, but only because this style can be used as cover for formulaic writing and predictable jokes. Panto humour can work, but the number one rule is that you must be clear this is what your going for.

Writer/director James Tobias doesn’t muck about here. After the opening musical number of Mole and Ratty, scene two gives us the first appearance of wicked Weasel, hammed up as the pantomime villain. Booing is encouraged, and just in case anyone is still in doubt as to the genre, “Oh no I didn’t / Oh yes you did” comes into scene three to settle the argument. Toad’s song of “Who’s the Toad? You’re the toad!” draws in the audience further; meanwhile the humour is mostly groaners, with Weasel’s song about living of “Weaselly Street” being the sort of thing to expect. But rather than indulging in the usual mistake of building up one gag at a time such that the audience sees it a mile off, it’s one groaner after another faster than you can see them coming. As it should be.

Continue reading

Roundup: The Warren Outdoors

The top of The Warren against a sunset

Reviews: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare

It now looks like we’re in for a slow return for conventional indoor theatre. It’s not clear what’s pushing this more: a government dragging its feet over matters as trivial as actors projecting their voices, or theatres themselves deciding it’s not worthwhile for the foreseeable future. But bucking the trend are the outdoor theatres. Even though their go-ahead wasn’t that much ahead of their indoor counterparts, there are some venues determined to go ahead with whatever they can. And the one of greatest interest ot the fringe circuit is The Warren. Normally a pop-up venue that forms the centrepiece of Brighton Fringe, this has hastily reinvented itself as an outdoor venue on the beach. I was invited to the media launch day, as as a weekend visit to Brighton is probably the closest I’m going to get to a summer holiday this year, I decided to take it up.

I’ve already written the basics in my preview for both this festival and a similar outdoor festival in London, but to reiterate the main point, there are two approaches that outdoor events are using. Some are sticking to the traditional method of one ticket per person and making sure the audience are spread out. The Warren, however, has gone down the route of group ticketing. Their auditorium consists of fifty picnic tables, and one ticket equals one table seating up to six people. If you can manage six people from no more than two households, it works out considerably cheaper than six tickets at a normal fringe performance. The obvious drawback? It works out rather expensive if you’re not in a large group. To mitigate this, The Warren have now introduced “standby” tickets for up to two people that can be bought up to one hour before a performance if available (and it’s a safe bet they will be) – this keeps the price sane if there’s two of you, but I wish they’d do something similar for solo punters.

Continue reading

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2016

Skip to: Jurassic Park, Of Mice and Men, The Bookbinder, Dancing in the Dark, The Jungle Book, Le Bossu, Consuming Passions, The Season Ticket, Frankenstein, How Did We Get To This Point?

And so, we come up to the final year of the list for now. When first set off doing this, I had planned to do these articles all the way to the present day, but I found as I went along it was more fun doing this as a retrospective, in particular wondering what these artists who impressed me are doing now. So I’m going to stop here for now and continue in real time. The Ike Award Hall of Fame 2017 will be done next year, 2018 the year after, so that there will always be a 3-4 period to reflect and see what happens next.

But before that, the outstanding plays of 2016, and this is a long list. It was probably chance more than anything, but amongst the plays I saw in 2016, the standard was exceptional. As a result, there are ten of you who’ve kept me busy writing this up:

Jurassic Park / Dinosaur Park / The Jurassic Parks

What is the best thing you can hope to get from the Edinburgh Fringe. Some might say a Fringe First, some might say wall-to-wall five-star reviews, but there is surely no greater honour than everybody at the fringe saying how great you were. At the 2015 fringe, I lost count of the number of times people saying how good Jurassic Park was. So I took the opportunity to work this into my visit I checked it out for myself (now called Dinosaur Park), and found out it is indeed as good as everyone said, and more.

Continue reading

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2014

Skip to: Blink, Samantha Mann, Inheritance Blues, Chaplin, Roundelay

Now we go into the third year of the blog, and the plays I rated as outstanding step up a notch. I’m not sure whether I was seeing more plays or getting a better radar for the good ones, but there was quite a haul.

2014 also was noted for a different reason, but we’ll get on to this later.

Blink

Scene from Blink

It is rare for me to rate a play as outstanding, but it’s even rarer for a play to get me emotional. Nabokov’s play is one of those rarities. There’s so many plays and films of “will they or won’t they get together?” (spoiler: yes, duh) I’ve long since been desensitised to it, and yet Phil Porter’s story of Jonah and Sophie has you desperately wanting these two the happiness they need. Both outsiders on the fringe of the society, they way they come to know each other is far from ordinary,  something that would easily be misunderstood by an outsider, but the script always explains why they do what they do.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Blink, Nabokov

The thing that move the play from excellent to outstanding, however, way the ending. It might be the ending that no-one wanted, but it was the only ending that could have happened. A bog-standard love story would have ended with them getting together and living happily ever after – but real stories don’t end there. It’s a punch in the guts when the inevitable happens, but that’s the way things go sometimes.

Add to the this innovative set perfectly depicting the unreal, this could not have been a better start to the year.

Ms. Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit

Close-up of Charles Adrian as Samantha Mann

I’ve been aware for a long time that, far from being two distinct genres, theatre and comedy have a big overlap, but it was this show from the comedy sections of Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe that I rated as outstanding on the terms I rate theatre. On the surface, Samantha Mann is drag character comedy from Charles Adrian on a fuddled middle-aged spinster doing a poetry reading. If she ever gets round to the poetry. In fact, she spends half an hour whittering away before getting to this poem.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit, Charles Adrian

But it’s in the whittering where the real stories. At first glance you might think she’s giving away past acecdotes of ineptness, but it’s deeper than that. Slowly an unhappy story is pieced together of Samantha Mann’s lonesome life. The shy spinster she is now is the product of distant parents, a fun brother, and a tragedy that comes out of nowhere, very cleverly disguised underneath the laughter. The final poem “Who goes there” is accidentally the most moving poem of her set. There have been companion pieces produced for the world of Samantha Mann since, but the original will always be unbeatable.

Inheritance Blues

6791506503_9b3274c30f_z

Student theatre has a notoriety for many reasons: badly executed, unoriginal, or mistakenly thinking they’re being deep and profound – and, boy, I’ve had my fair share of those. So Dugout Theatre is a prime example of how it can go right. I first saw them do a excellent faithful-but-menacing version of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice back when they were still students, and then I thought nothing of it until everyone started raving about their smash hit Inheritance Blues. And that, it turned out, was extraordinary. I’m not sure whether anyone in this cast of six had professional training, but I don’t need to lower the bar: this was a superb play easily at the same standard as full professionals.

Ike-Inheritance

The story is simple enough: a three-piece band come to play at a funeral, and after the wake they are trapped by a storm with the thee sons, with the one who was closest to his father trying to rope his brothers into an ill-advised scheme to run his late father’s hotel. But what made this play stand out was the music slickly combined with the story. Starting with the “Hot Air Ballues” observing the first between the three brothers and later getting drawn into the story themselves, it really comes into its own, especially the surrealistic re-enactments of the outlandish stories the favourite son of the departed believe about his dad. And yet, for all the bells and whistles attached to a funny play, there is a lovely poignant bitter-sweet ending.

I’ve seen most of Dugout’s plays they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe and loved all of them, but nothing could ever top Inheritance Blues. The last play that featured the Dugout ensemble as we know it was the aptly-named Swansong in 2017 – since they they have acted as producers for other solo plays, still to good standard, but never a replacement for the ensemble we know from their greatest hits. But Dugout Theatre harm thoroughly earned its place amongst the greatest fringe ensembles.

Chaplin

Scene from Chaplin

There’s a lot of plays going round at the moment about Charlie Chaplin, but the one I saw and loved has an obscure origin. ACE productions is based in Finland, operates all over the world, and the Edinburgh Fringe production was a rare foray into the UK. This really could have done with being a full-length production, but in the 75 minutes given they did a perfectly potted history of Charlie Chaplin, warts and all. How he began, how real events worked into his films, the suspiciously high correlation between the leading female role and who he’s currently copping of with, all culminating into his disgrace and exile from Hollywood.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Chaplin, Ace Productions

It was the final chapter that was done the most memorably. Whilst some of his indiscretions come back to bite him, this play makes a lot of his naivety over the upcoming communist scare, with the iconic speech from The Great Dictator used against him in ways no-one could have foreseen. And closing footage was perfect too: Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Award, his rehabilitation into Hollywood thankfully before he died. It’s a pity play was never heard of again, but what a one-hit wonder it was.

Roundelay

Scene from Roundelay (the Judge)

With so many successes under his belt, Alan Ayckbourn has set himself a huge task: how do you write something that doesn’t feel derivative of anything he’s written before? For me, this was achieved with Roundelay. At first glance this looks like a re-hash of Confusions – isn’t five one-act plays in two hours old hat now? – but there was one difference whose significance you must not underestimate: the five plays can be performed in any order. Indeed, the order is decided randomly for each performance. And, truly testament to Ayckbourn’s writing skills, the p[lays work in any order. One way round a play will plant a seed that forms crucial background knowledge in another play. The other way round, instead of a seed you get a revelation that changes what you thought you know about a story just gone.

Ike-Roundelay

It wasn’t perfect – perfection is not a requirement of an Ike Award. The Agent was, I thought, the weak link of the five, played for too many laughs at the expense of believability. But The Judge was wonderful, in my view better than any of the five famous plays from Confusions: an elderly man set up to meet a woman made up to look like his wife as she was when they first met. For some of Ayckbourn’s later plays, I’ve not shared the enthusiasm of the critics, but this one I think is a very underrated. Hope we have not seen the last of this.

But not …

2014 also had the dubious honour of being the year I saw a lot of terrible plays. I have a long-standing rule that I lay off low-key performances from low-key groups, but it’s bigger-budget performances from people who ought to know better are fair game. However, there was one play that scored the unholy trinity: no artistic merit, morally repellent, and a high-profile group that makes it open season. Looking for Paul achieves all three – I don’t know any other way a play can get me that angry.

As I’ve previously said, Paul McCarthy, the “artist” this play idolises, is someone I have a problem with. He’s a bit like Damien Hirst, inexplicably lauded by the fine arts world (and if you don’t like it it’s your fault for not being cultured), except that Damien Hirst  does at least draw the line at shitting coloured diarrhoea on paper. Damien Hirst also has the defence that no-one’s forcing you to look at his spot painting. Not so for Paul McCarthy, who is the darling of “public art”, especially ones involving giant turds of butt-plugs. This is the entire premise of this play, a woman who objects to a butt-plug gnome outside her window and ends up getting roped into a closing scene that is disgusting for the sake of it. It appears to be a two-fingered salute to anyone expressing incorrect opinions about what they do and don’t want built on their doorstep.

The play (if we can call is a play – an opening forty-five minutes of reading out an exchange of emails is a tenuous claim) plays on the notion that controversy is good because It Provokes Debate™, a catch-all term used to invalidate any arguments to the contrary. It couldn’t be a bigger love-letter to Paul McCarthy if all the actors gave him a blow job on stage, nor that have been any more disgusting to watch than the final fifteen minutes. I suppose it’s a bit much to focus all my ire on either this play or the artist it celebrates – it’s more that embodies everything I hate about the elitist culture of contemporary fine art. Nothing I have seen since gets anywhere near my feelings for this – but don’t worry, when it finally happens I’ll certainly let you know.

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2013

JoSkip to: The Thrill of Love, Jordan

Continuing the backdated Ike awards, our next year is 2013. There were only two plays to make it to the list this year, but what a two it was.

The Thrill of Love

Scene from The Thrill of Love

Amanda Whittington’s play about Ruth Ellis is my favourite play of hers, but it was James Dacre’s directing that upgraded this from a good play to an outstanding one. I’ve seen three plays directed by Dacre, and the common theme he works into all of them is a sense of the unreal. It suited this play perfectly, as the world of Ruth Ellis was an unreal one on many ways: the bizarre world where so many women were expected to dive into the sleaze if they were to become famous; the hypocritical world that indulged these sleazy lives and condemned them in equal measure; and the tragic world of a woman who could not stop herself loving a man no good for her.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Thrill of Love, New Vic Theatre

No play can be outstanding without an outstanding script; this is a strongest script I know from Whittington’s already strong catalogue, and telling Ellis’s story through through the women who knew year worked very well, as did the sub-plot of friend Vickie Martin, who believed the club where she worked would be immortalised by her some – such cruel irony. There was also a strong all-round cast, but Faye Castelow as Ruth Ellis was superb, making very believable act of someone apparently describes by her executioner as the bravest person he ever hanged. I am now used to high standards from Amanda Whittingdon, James Dacre and the new Vic, but it was the combination of these three that topped it all.

Jordan

Publicity Image from Jordan

It was easy for The Thrill of Love to explore what would make a women kill her cruel lover, but much harder to explore what would drive a mother to kill her blameless child. But that is the subject of Jordan, a solo play on the tragic tale of Shirley Jones. It’s a play that lays bare a reality that many people won’t consider – it is possible for someone to be depressed to the point that not only do they feel there’s no future in a life for themselves, they also feel there’s in the lives of those closet to them. Even someone convinced any child-killer is a monster would be hard pressed to come out of this play without seeing Shirley Jones for a tragic victim.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Jordan, Stickleback Theatre

Moira Buffini originally wrote this play for herself*, but Stickleback Theatre couldn’t have followed in her footsteps better. Sian Weedon was a superb Shirley Jones, getting every aspect of her character down to a tee, from the rough and ready Shirley from Morecambe, to the broken woman after she does the terrible deed, to the fairytale story of Rumplestiltskin. The only pity was that, outside of the Edinburgh Fringe, where there is a niche for just about everything, this one seems to struggle to get an audience. And this play deserves a big audience. There’s few times I tell people to see a play for the good of society, but this is one of them: a valuable play that puts understanding and compassion ahead of knee-jerk judgementalism.

*: Technically this is co-written with Anna Reynolds, who shared a cell with Shirley Jones, but Buffini was the main creative force behind this.

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2012

Skip to: The Girl with No Heart, Mess, A Government Inspector

This is something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I introduced the Ike Awards back in 2017. Since Brighton Fringe that year I’ve been using this as my equivalent for a five-star rating in a blog that otherwise doesn’t do star ratings. But there’s still five years of material before then, many of whom also deserved recognition. So, whilst there’s nothing else to keep up with, let’s do the long-overdue backdated awards.

We start with 2012, beginning with the reason Ike Awards are named after Ike …

The Girl with No Heart

Sihloutte of Samoora

Sparkle and Dark have had three highly successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the one that started it off wasn’t what anyone expected. They came into 2012 best known for The Clock Master, three linked fairy tales with a subtle dark undertone. It was billed as a children’s show but massively popular with adults as well as families (always a good sign). This doubtless would have been a big hit had they taken it to the Edinburgh Fringe, so it came as a big surprise when they instead took a brand new play, taking on the considerably darker subject of nuclear war.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Girl with No Heart, Sparkle and Dark

Both The Clock Master and The Girl With No Heart were produced to an excellent standard. Writer Louisa Ashton, director Shelley Knowles-Dixon and musician  Lawrence Illsley are an excellent team who between them put together an excellent mix of puppetry, music, choreography and Grimms-style storytelling. But the thing that pushes The Girl With No Heart to Ike Award level is the courage to take and extraordinary gamble: having a tried tested surefire hit ready and instead going for something untested they thought were better. It was a reckless gamble too, and I’m no ready to recommend anyone else tries this, but it paid off. Congratualtions Sparkle and Dark, you win.

Ike, by the way, is one of the characters from The Girl with No Heart. When I was trying to think of a name for the awards I eventually settles on an arbitrary name, like the Oscars of the Tonys. As the first place to meet this standard, Sparkle and Dark, have (with their permission) the honour of the award being named after their creation.

Mess

Caroline Horton in Mess, eating an apple with feathers flying around

There was one other name I recognised in the Edinburgh Fringe listings, and that was Caroline Horton. Like Sparkle and Dark, she’d come to my attention the previous year, this time with the You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, a lovely recreation of her French Grandmother’s story of being separated from her English fiance is World War Two. Unlike Sparkle and Dark, this has already had a successful run at Edinburgh, so moving on to something new was the only option. Her follow-up, Mess, had an even more personal connection than the last one – and it did not disappoint.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Mess, Caroline Horton

Mess is a semi-fictionalised story of Horton’s own battle with anorexia. For most of of, it’s the most puzzling of illnesses – what would make anyone do something so self-destructive? This does a lot to help understand why. The most memorable moment is where Josephine sees in hospital another woman, little more than a skeleton. One would think that would be a horrible warning of what to avoid – instead, it’s a target to beat. Another strong theme in the play is what effect anorexia has on the people around you, in this case Boris played by Hannah Boyd. And yet – the play as a whole is uplifting and often funny, help along by Seiriol Davies’ brilliant musical score. It was a very brave thing to take to the stage, but such a great thing to bring to everyone.

I’ve not written much about Caroline Horton lately – after Mess she moved in a new direction, and I don’t get her new work. I’m not knocking it – she has amassed a big following for her new work so she’s doing something right. But Mess remains one of my highlights of 2012, and for most of the year is was a very tight run between her and Sparkle and Dark for best production of the year.

A Government Inspector

Scene from A Government Inspector

And then, just when it looks like I’d have an agonising choice for best play of 2012, something came along and pipped them at the post. I’d been aware there was an up-and-coming pair of names at Northern Broadsides, with director Conrad Nelson and writer Deborah McAndrew almost functioning as a company within a company, and their innovative adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarachist. But it was their re-telling of The Government Inspector that shines at their all-time best.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: A Government Inspector, Northern Broadsides

The concept is a pretty obvious one to do: some things never change, and Gogol’s story of corruption in 19th-century Russia fits perfectly almost anywhere, this time an unspecified borough somewhere in Yorkshire or Lancashire. Council chairman Tony Belcher is big fish in a small pond, loving his position of tinpot tyrant. The rest of the council official are equally opportunistic and self-serving, so when a low-grade civil servant is mistaken for an inspector to root out corruption, they pamper him. Jonathan Sapper ought to be another villain, but he is such as idiot whose delusions of grandeur are inflated by corrupt official you can’t help like him. No Northern Broadsides production would be complete without their signature touches, and the on-stage brass brand and Yorkshire humour completed a perfect transplant to the region.

Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew hold the unique achievement of winning best production twice. They were the natural successors to Barrie Rutter when he stepped down as artistic director, so the foregone conclusion of taking over the rein was sharply contrasted with leaving Northern Broadsides completely after a year with Conrad Nelson as interim director. They are now working at a much more local level with their own Stoke-based Claybody Theatre, and I intend to catch up with this when I have the chance. In the meantime, congratulation once again for superb execution of a long-over idea.

Ask Me Anything: two plays in one

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/AMA-website.jpg

The Paper Birds pull off a huge challenge with a play that says two different things to two different audiences. But as a vehicle for change, there’s one more thing they could do.

If there’s one thing you cannot fault The Paper Birds for, it’s ambition. Anyone who saw Mobile can vouch for this. I gone on long enough about how brilliantly this was staged – a small site-specific piece in a caravan, with talking clock radios and microwaves, moving views out the windows, astral projections as so on – but I’ve not really talked about how difficult it is to pull something like this off. There’s a lot more to this than technical know-how: you need a vision, the ability to guess if an audience will buy into this vision, and – the hardest one seeing as there’s no knowing what an audience will make of it – the audacity to attempt this in the first place. But, that achievement under their belt, where do you from there? In terms of technical ambition, I don’t see how you could top Mobile. And when you’re scaling up to a bigger audience in a co-production with Live Theatre, an intimate performance in something caravan-sized isn’t an option either. And yet their follow-up, Ask Me Anything, is just as ambitious as Mobile, but in a different way.

Apart from their innovative staging, the other thing that The Paper Birds are noted for is their verbatim theatre. This time round, they did something similar, and based the entire show around asking teenagers to write in and ask them anything. Some of them asked for factual information (answered in a song at the beginning going into the joy of tax returns), some asked for some more personal questions, and some questions were tough to answer. Whether The Paper Birds realised it or not, they set themselves a real challenge, because this is, in effect, two different plays being told at the same time. To a regular theatre audience, this is an interesting measure of how teenage life has – or hasn’t – change since we were that age. But to teenagers themselves, it’s going to be a guide as to what to expect in the years ahead – a kind of theatrical version of the personal pages of Mizz or Just Seventeen. Continue reading

Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school

be_janeeyre-7269-1024x683-1

Nick Lane’s third script for Blackeyed Theatre has a lot more in common than his predecessor than the first two, but this old style still suits Blackeyed Theatre well.

Nick Lane is currently all the rage with Blackeyed Theatre. His adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not written for Blackeyed but they did the biggest tour) was a great success and is returning later this year. Since then, he’s stayed with the company and written two more adaptations: Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four and now this adaptation of one of the most famous Bronte novels. It’s a step away from Blackeyed Theatre’s strongest area of gothic horror, but only a small one. Out goes the setting befitting of those Draculas and Frankensteins, and in comes the bleak windswept moors that characterise the stories of all three Bronte sisters – something that evidently suits Blackeyed’s style well.

The usual challenge with adaptations of classic books is how to keep the cast size manageable. Unless you are setting your sights on a West End-scale production with the number of actors in double-figures, you have to delicately arrange the characters over a small cast, doubling up parts when you can, cutting characters when you can’t. Fortunately, Blackeyed Theatre have plenty of practice on this matter, and this is no exception. Kelsey Short plays Jane Eyre, seeking her own way in the world after a childhood raised by begrudging relatives. Staying faithful to the book, she also narrates in first person – after all, “reader, she married him” just isn’t the same. Ben Warwick plays Mr. Rochester, who takes her first a governess, and later seeks her as his wife. They form a good double act, with our heroine’s good heart and naivety contrasting with a principled but damaged man trying to reconnect with his human side. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2019 awards

Here we are at the end of the year, with what is probably my most interesting post of the year. There will other review of the year posts coming from other people, but even from the most enthusiastic reviewers who praise everything, this is where it comes to a crunch: you can say everything’s great, but you can’t say everything’s the greatest. You’ve got to pick one over the others. Even in this blog, pickier than most for who gets the best reviews, I have to get choosy here. There’s a long list of plays in my pick of the fringe over three fringes, and a good number of equally good plays from elsewhere, but even with a long list of categories, there aren’t enough to go round. So it’s been a tough choice of what to include – but some of the most important choices were easy.

At some point, I really ought to write up these rules. New rules have been introduced over the years in order to keep things fair, give small acts a fair chance against the big ones, and avoid the same acts coming up year after year, but all of this needs to go into one play, Maybe next year. In the meantime, however, one important clarification of an existing rule: The restrictions on conflict of interest are relaxed a bit compared to reviews. People who I’m friends with or who I previously worked with (who I wouldn’t be comfortable reviewing) can win these awards. However, people who I’m currently getting money or opportunities from are still off-limits, including productions of theirs that I wasn’t involved in.

One other caveat before I start: this has not been a typical year for me outside of theatre. I’ve written about this enough times, but you can find the details at the bottom of this post. I was in a better state some times of the year than others – as far as I can tell, this doesn’t affect my choices, but who knows? What this does mean, however, is that I didn’t get round to seeing some plays that would normally have been on my “must see” list. For anyone who’s out of the running for this reason, my apologies. Maybe next year.

So let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to get through between now and New Year’s Day when I announce the winner of best production. The envelope, please …

Best new writing:

As always, awards open with Best New Writing. The best plays are usually the combination of both script and production, but this one considers script alone. In general, another competent theatre company should be able to pick up the script and do just as good a job. In second place, this goes to The Red. Marcus Brigstocke’s play inspired by his own battle with alcohol was very well written, gave food for thought on many matters directly and indirectly related to the theme of the play, and closes with a very clever “blink and you’ll miss it” ending. There are been a fair number of disappointments in recent Edinburgh Fringes from big names turning their hand to theatre – this one will restore your faith.

approaching-empty_production_helenmurray-8-1024x683-1

The script in first place, however, wins from an unexpected angle. Live Theatre has made a big thing of a diverse programme, and their co-production with Tamasha Theatre, Approaching Empty was a headliner. Tamasha are, of course, most famous for East is East, but the thing that struck me here was that whilst East is East was about an British Asian family where things are different, in Approaching Empty things are very much the same. That’s not what clinches the top spot though – instead, it’s Ishy Din’s excellent script of the tale of fall of innocence, where good intentions lead to a terrible outcome. It’s a struggling taxi firm run by two men and their families, one seeking to buy the business from the other – but camaraderie mixes with white lies, and white lies mix with self interest. And the way it’s done is very believable. Ishy Din has also earned my respect this year with some of the best playwriting advice I’ve heard, dispelling the myth of the life-changing moment and telling some truths of the unseen hard work that lies behind the so-called breakthrough scripts. The universality of this play is a bonus, but a welcome bonus: in a tale where people who trust each other are left with no choice but to betray each other, that truly is a story that could be anybody’s.

Continue reading