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.

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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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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2013 awards

So, another year, another list of awards to dish out. And this is where I have to get choosy. Normally, no matter how hard I try to be objective, the temptation is always there to say “Didn’t they all do well?” Not here. This time, there can only be one winner per category no matter how much I’d like to be nice to everyone.

Now, before anyone on this list gets too excited, a reminder of the rules. This is a set of awards with the largely arbitrary entry criterion that it needs to have been a play that I saw in 2013. It has a judging panel of one, that person being me, with the sole measure being how much I enjoyed it. If it’s any use, by “enjoyable” I mean stuff which I find intelligent and/or original without and still be fun to watch. In general, productions I’ve already seen in previous years are not eligible unless they have substantially changed.

To give you an idea of the competition there are 12 categories (11 good, 1 bad), and 67 eligible plays. Last year, there were a number of clear winners. This time, there’s a lot of tougher decisions. So, without further waffling, here I go: Continue reading