So, with Christmas becoming the moment for my regular end-of-year awards, I thought Easter would be a good spot for my now annual review of Ike Awards from years gone by.
For the recap: during lockdown, I embarked on a project to backdate Ike Awards (my equivalent to five stars) for plays prior to spring 2017 when I started doing this. I went through years 2012 and 2016, and had intended to catch up all the way to the present, but by this point I decided I liked doing this as a retrospective, often having the chance to see where they play and/or group is now. So from 2017 onwards, I’ve been going forward one year at a time.
However, at least one Ike winner from 2018 knows she’s in the queue and is getting impatient, so let’s take a look at the greatest plays I saw from that year. And this was a good year.
I rarely review traditional amateur dramatics on this blog. That’s not because traditional amateur dramatics should be written off before you’ve seen in – indeed, some performances are damned good – but, if you’re going to confine yourselves to published scripts that already knows, it’s near-impossible to produce something that isn’t a worse version of a prior professional production. I, on the other hand, look for work that is different, or better, or both. The People’s Theatre have managed this by doing something that most professional theatres can’t: adding an ensemble to the cast. It’s quite common for musicals to have an ensemble but rare for conventional theatre – nevertheless, the People’s Theatre made it look like Hugh Whitmore’s play was written for a cast of twenty all along.
However, the clincher was the performance of Richard Jack as Alan Turing. I know I said that it’s near-impossible for an amateur group to be as good as the professional productions, but honestly, that was up there with the best performances of the fully professional actors. A common mistake I see amateur theatre make (the People’s is not immune from this themselves) is to think good acting mean remembering all the lines and charging through them word-perfect. Hugh Whitmore’s play is the classic it is because it define Alan Turing as a character so well, and David Jack understood every nuance written into the scripts and brought it to the fore.
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:
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.
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 →
Sherlock Holmes is tougher going than your average Blackeyed production to follow, but Nick Lane once again produces a good adaptation faithful in many ways, and the changes work to the book’s strengths.
Few touring companies are in the enviable position of Blackeyed Theatre. A company that makes a name for itself in one thing is doing well, but Blackeyed had done this in several areas. John Ginman’s adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein were impressive enough, and their faithful but excellent performance of Teechers is another string to their bow, but to have topped this last year with Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was exceptional. The only down-side? This wasn’t quite the first performance. It was the first performance on a tour of this scale, and the addition of an extra character making it look like this was how the book was written all along was superbly executed, but the credit for risk-taking goes to a couple of earlier smaller but highly-acclaimed performances. Even so, a second play written and directed by Nick Lane was a no-brainer. This time, however, it really is a full premiere – no playing it safe and letting another group perform it first to see how it goes.
And so Blackeyed Theatre are spending the best part of a year touring Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four – not quite a Gothic horror tale that Blackeyed have built their reputation on, but still something stylistically similar. This time, Nick Lane has written a more faithful adaptation of the book, which one might think would always be the logical choice for a murder mystery, but you might be surprised. I have seen countless stage adaptations for crime stories, from Conan Doyle to Christie, that spoiled the story by mucking around with the plot from the book. And not just dumbing down – that I could at least understand – instead, I have seen major plot points such as the identity of the killer changed for utterly inexplicable reasons. Not that you should clump in Christie and Conan Doyle; that’s the other disservice done to Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s rare for these stories to work to a climax of bringing everyone together into a room to identify the villain, and you do Sherlock no favours by trying to pander to this expectation. Continue reading →
With two excellent faithful gothic adaptations under their belt, Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde looks like a third. But this time, there’s a big change, and it’s superbly done.
There’s been so much banging about Blackeyed Theatre lately, myself included, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is synonymous with the partnership of John Ginman and Eliot Giuralarocca, responsible for an excellent adaptation of Dracula and a superb adaptation of Frankenstein. In reality, that’s only a recent addition to Blackeyed’s catalogue. But in spite of a successful ongoing run of Teechers, it’s gothic horror where they’ve made a name for themselves. So, by accident or by design, they’ve embarked on a third tale, and after the two big classics, Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde seems like an obvious choice. However – good job though I’m sure they could have done – it’s not Ginman and Giuralarocca in charge this time. Instead, it’s written and directed by Nick Lane.
Starting with the obvious difference: you don’t have the technique of dispensing with speakers and doing all sound on stage that made Dracula and Frankenstein so distinctive. Here, it’s back to the conventional sound system. Other than that, the staging is stylistically similar to before. But there is one big big big change which I suspect most of the audience were not aware of, and that is writing a completely new major character into the story. And not just a clumsily shoehorned love interest. The thing that makes this adaptation outstanding is that he makes it look like this is how the story was meant to be told all along.
Faithful to the book, innovative to stage yet shunning electronic wizardry, Blackeyed Theatre’s take on Frankenstein outshines the multimedia extravaganzas.
Technology has transformed theatres. There was a time when the only way to get music of a decent sound quality was to bring your own orchestra along, a sound of a thunderstorm has to be done with complicated off-stage equipment, and lighting was a complicated affair only possible in the bigger theatres. Nowadays it’s possible to to achieve all this even in the smallest fringe theatre spaces. Such is the advance of technology it’s easy to forget there was once a great art to staging plays without electronic wizardry. Not a better way or a worse way, but something different.
But one group who doesn’t want to let this go is Blackeyed Theatre. This groups does a range of plays in a range of styles, but this particular brand first appeared in 2013 when a team led by director Eliot Giuralarocca did Dracula. It was a small-scale production with a cast of five and no sound effects other than what the actors produce on stage, and apart from one bit of over-ambitious doubling (that caused Van Hesling to have a fight with Dracula played by the same actor), it was a good production in a refreshing style. Now the same team is back with Frankenstein. They’re still faithful to the book, still using a small cast, and still have no sound other than what they’ve done a stage – but they’ve built on what they did in Dracula, and gone from a good adaptation to an outstanding one.
(Prologue: Chris Neville-Smith sits as his computer, thinking that he really can’t be arsed to write two articles about two plays he’s already seen. “What I really need” he thinks, “is a contrived theme to connect the two together.” Suddenly, he realises they’re both set in schools. Problem solved.)
Who would be a secondary school teacher? Here you are, trying to help teenagers learn the stuff they ought to know unless they want to spend the next forty years in the beef caracass factory, and what do they do? Have a riot. And who would be a secondary school pupil? It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with thick oversized schoolboys in charge. The only consolation is that it gives teachers and pupils alike the chance to write plays about what schools are like.
So two plays that are doing to rounds now are Teechers and Donna Disco. Both plays are smash hits, and having seen them before I can vouch they are smash hits for a reason. I also had high expectations for the companies producing them. And so, in perhaps the least surprising turn of events in the history of the blog, both productions were exactly as good as I was expecting. I won’t give a detailed appraisal of the plays as they’re already getting praise from pretty every Tom, Dick and Harry, but I’ll give a quick run-down. Continue reading →
Dracula is the last story you’d expect to be workable as a five-hander play – but John Ginman’s adaptation just about pulls it off.
For some reason, famous novels seem to be particularly prone to bad adaptations, on both stage and screen, at least amongst the ones I’ve seen. Of course, most novels are too long and detailed to fit into a play or film without substantial cuts, and it’s not always easy to make the right choice, but most of the time the butchering is inexcusable. There’s the predictable commercially-motivated interference such as inserting an unnecessary/inappropriate love interest, or dumbing down the plot to keep it understandable to the audience of idiots that only exist in the minds of the marketing department. But most irritating of all is changing substantial bits of the story for no apparent reason, even if they bit they cut was perfectly workable on stage or screen – I can only imagine these adaptation writers think they’re making it better.
So it was with some caution that I ventured to Harrogate to see a new stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel needs no introduction; the adaptation is a new one from Blackeyed Theatre on its first run. Adaptation writer John Ginman does not, thank goodness, attempt to impose pointless changes to the plot, but he did take a couple of decision that were a bit of a surprise. One might assume that an effective adaptation of the famous Gothic horror story would need elaborate sound design to make the play suitably atmospheric, and a large cast to accommodate the multitude of characters in the books. This play, does neither. There are no sound effects other than what the actors produce on stage, in a nod to how things were done in Victorian days. More importantly, by either boldness or recklessness, the cast is just five. That’s tiny for a novel of this complexity and much less than most adaptation. It is, if you like, the “fun-size” version of Dracula adaptations.
But whilst “fun-size” usually code for “disappointingly small” in chocolate, this adaptation is anything but disappointing. Blackeyed Theatre is not, as one might assume, a small-scale production economising on cast and technicians for touring purposes, but a well-established group with a large creative team behind it – and the small scale of the production is used as a strength rather than a weakness. The sound was produced entirely on stage, using singing, instrument, bells, and other things to produce something just as atmospheric as sound effects. And why not? This was, after all, how sound was done before there were loudspeakers.