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.

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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

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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.

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.

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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards

Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.

But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.

Best new writing:

Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.

Vivians20Music201969In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2017 awards

And it’s that time of year. Time to pick some winners for the whole of 2017. And, boy, there’s been some tough choices this time round. Some of these categories I’ve been certain of a winner for months, but for others I’ve been changing my mind repeatedly up to the very last moment. But I have made my decisions, so now it’s time to announce them.

As always, a reminder of the ground rules. Anything I saw for the first time this year is eligible, whether I wrote a review or not. This includes plays previously excluded from review coverage owing to conflicts of interest (that’s a teaser). The only notable exclusion is that plays I have seen in previous years from the same company are not eligible a second time round – this is so that the awards are not dominated by long-running successful shows. So this puts I Am Beast out of the running, something that was a previous runner-up for best production and would have been well-placed for several awards this time round.

So, who’s won? The list is drawn up, envelopes are checked, and any mix-ups involving La La Land are safeguarded against. Here we go.

Best New Writing

This was a tricky one, but not the the usual reason. This time, it came down to a question of whether the winning entry can be considered new writing. This means this year’s runner-up can be considered the winner if you disagree with my ruling. So in second place for best new writing (or first if you argue that the winner doesn’t count) is BlackCatfishMusketeer. There were a lot of good scripts this year, but the thing that stood out with this one was the fact that the entire play was written in instant messages on a dating app. As any writer knows, things that read well on the page (or screen) rarely sound so good when spoken, but Dylan Coburn Grey managed to do both. With a clever unexpected twist on the issue of trust,  Malaprop Theatre comes out of nowhere to come so close to scooping one of the best awards.

the-red-lion-by-patrick-marber-trafalgar-studios-700x455So what went to a stewards enquiry but has gone on to win? It’s Patrick Marber with The Red Lion. Live Theatre’s production this year was not a premiere – that was at the Dorfman Theatre (the smallest of the three spaces in the National Theatre) in 2015. In the end, I made a decision based on what this award recognises: a successful production on the strength of a conventionally-written script, as opposed to a production that does a good production of an earlier well-known play, or a play whose script was a joint effort of the cast – both of those have their own awards. And there’s a lot to be said about Patrick Marber’s script here: a four-way power-struggle in the world of non-league football, where alliances and ambitions rise and wane on the dealings of three men in the dressing room of the club they all call home. It’s a world he knows intimately, a world he’s creating convincingly on stage, and the characterisation of the three men – all with their own hopes, strength, fear and weaknesses – is superb. It may be second time lucky for this play to gain a successful West End run, and it’s a wonder that the National didn’t make more of this the first time round, but, hey, the National’s loss is Live Theatre’s gain. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2016 awards

Phew. Here we go one more time. I’ve counted how many plays I’ve reviewed in 2016, at it’s come to 92, with 3 others still pending. Yeek. I had no idea it was that many. Now it’s time to do the annual awards. It’s always an interesting exercise to do – whilst I have some front runners in mind for some awards, for many of the other categories I have no idea who’s going to win it until I’m forced to sit down and go through everything that’s a possibility.

Couple of slight changes this year. There are three new categories included; two quirky ones and one serious one. Other change is that the categories are going to be revealed in a slightly different order than before. This is because there is still one play left in 2016 for me to see, so I’m going to start with the categories it can’t win (e.g. it can’t win best new writing because it’s an adaptation). I have already pencilled in winners, but there’s still time for a late game-changer.

As always, the eligibility for this award is based on the highly arbitrary list of what I’ve seen in 2016. Most major productions in Newcastle and Durham get a chance – after that, with touring and fringe productions, it gets more arbitrary, with some winners only on the list by chance. One important exclusion to remind you of is that plays that have been in previous years by the same company on the same run are usually not eligible – this is so that long-running shows don’t unduly dominate the awards year after year.

I’ve run out of jokes about metaphorical drum rolls or inappropriately scantily-clad celebrities opening envelopes, so let’s get straight to it. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2015 awards

It’s that time of year again. In recognition of all the hard work of all the groups I’ve seen over the year, and in no way a shameless attempt to generate more web traffic for this blog, here are my list of awards. With a panel of one seeing lots and lots of plays over the year, a shortlist of plays was put forward and a jury of one spending hours deliberating over the verdict, I finally have a list of winners.

A few changes this year. For a start, I’m going to gradually announce the winners over five days in a completely unnecessary drive to build up tension. More interestingly, this year I’ve picked a runner-up for most categories, because I felt too many good plays would go unrecognised otherwise. Finally, I’ve added a couple of new categories this year: one is “Best collaborative work” to cater for the increasing number of devised theatre pieces I see that aren’t crap; the other, well, you’ll see when I get round to that.

Quick reminder of the other rules: this list is open to anything I first saw in 2015 – and what I see, especially at the festival fringes, largely comes down to luck. Productions I saw in previous years are generally not eligible for consideration, so that long-running successful shows don’t unfairly dominate the awards, although there will be one case here where I’ll bend that rule.

So, no more “didn’t they all do well”, it’s time to pick the winners. Okay, here we go … Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2014 awards

Move over Oscar, step aside Tony, who needs some silly ceremony where someone opens an envelope when who could be getting the prestigious honour of reading about your play on a chrisontheatre.wordpress.com post? Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s that time of year again, when I decide on the best plays I’ve seen all year. And, damn, once again I’m going to have to get choosy, because I’ve seen a lot of good plays that I’d be happy to see in this list, but there’s only twelve categories (eleven if you exclude the booby prize).

A reminder of the rules: this is based on my opinion and my opinion only. No bonus points for five-star reviews elsewhere. The only way that other people’s endorsements might help you is if it persuaded me to see your play in the first place (because, in order for you to be eligible, I will need to have seen your play). Productions I have seen in previous years generally aren’t eligible, so that small companies and new productions stand a fair chance against successful long-running shows.

So, if you can kindly imagine some glamorous Hollywood starlet in an unnecessarily skimpy dress opening an envelope, let us begin.

Best new writing:

Scene from BlinkBlink, by Phil Porter, produced by Nabokov, toured to Live in February. My God, I loved that play. For most of the year, this was the runaway leader. Alan Ayckbourn put a pretty good late challenge with Roundelay, but one play out of the set of five was weak, allowing Blink to win by a significant margin. I must admit Phil Porter was at a bit of an unfair advantage because I caught this play five days after been dumped. The day before Valentine’s Day. By text message. (It barely qualified as something you can be dumped from, but I was nonetheless a tad emotional at the time.) But it’s now ten months on, I’m back to my usual emotionless self, and I still think it’s wonderful.

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