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.

They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay – but what does it say?

5256

Northern Broadsides has a great track record in adapting classics for a modern-day audience. This re-telling of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, however, sells the story short for laughs.

I may not make many friends with my current batch of reviews, but I’ve seen several plays with sell-out ticket sales, or overwhelming acclaim, or both – and I’ve not shared the enthusiasm. They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, however, is going to be the toughest one to write, because I had the highest expectations for this. Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have a long track record of adapting classic plays for contemporary settings, and indeed another Dario Fo play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was my first experience of their collaboration, and that was excellent, with a masterful mix of comic timing and poignant messages. This time, however, one has come at the expense of the other, and the play is so hammed up for laughs it drowns out the serious meaning behind it.

When a play fails to live up to high expectations, it is tempting to write a review focusing entire on the negatives and ignore all the positives. So I shall begin with the positives. All of Northern Broadsides’ productions, from the darkest to the most farcial, have been produced to the highest production values, and this is no exception, with the fast-moving action executed flawlessly. The premise also gets off to a good start too. The play begins in a flat in Sheffield, where Anthea comes in with some big bags of shopping. Or rather looting. She confides to her friend Maggie that the local supermarket has pushed up prices one too many times and the impoverished customers won’t take any more and chose to help themselves. However, acting on the spur of the moment has its drawbacks, and Anthea finds herself loaded with plenty of items she doesn’t need, such as pet food. Then the two women have to hide the ill-gotten gains from the policemen looking for it, such as the anti-capitalist commie constable, or his boss, the anti-commie capitalist sergeant. Before, then, however, they must also hide things from Maggie’s husband Jack, who has never done anything illegal in his life (although some people might consider his dogmatic obsession with union rules and regulations to be a crime). And so we go from there. Continue reading

Hard times and hard adaptations

paul-barnhill-as-mr-sleary-and-cast-hard-times-photo-by-nobby-clark-e294acc2aenc-hard-times-005-700x467

Hard Times is a much harder story to adapt than the other works taken on by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson, but they did the best job they could have made of it.

Who called it first? Ten years ago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a side-show against Northern Broadsides’ main attraction of Shakespeare and other classic stories, starring or directed by Barrie Rutter, or both. And yet the husband-and-wife team of Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew has grown to become an attraction in their own right, with hits from A Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture, plus a collaboration with Barrie Rutter for An August Bank Holiday Lark,with not a weak link amongst them. Now with Conrad Nelson stepping in as interim artistic director, possibly a permanent arrangement, this pair are now set to dominate the programme. So it is no surprise that after a deservedly successful run of Cyrano de Bergerac that was co-produced with the New Vic, the people of Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme would be queuing up for their next show.

Their latest adaptation, however, is of a book rather than a play. And as choices of books go, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is, somewhat befitting its name, hard. The only Dickens novel that is set in the north (albeit in fictitious Coketown), the story is, in some respects, a longer version of A Christmas Carol. The central arc of the story is the journey of Thomas Gradgrind, a self-made man who attributes his success to learning facts. That, he strongly believes, is what his two children must be taught – and anything that cannot be explained with facts, such as art and love, must be suppressed.* Like Ebenezer Scrooge, his dogmaticism, well-intentioned though it may have started, comes at a heavy price for those he loves, until finally he sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. In the book, the three parts are titles “sowing”, “reaping” and “garnering”, and that summarises the story rather well. Continue reading

For Love or Money: Rutter’s farewell (for now?)

Barrie Rutter as Fuller

Blake Morrison does a good job updating a classic play against the high expectations set by Northern Broadsides, but Turcaret maybe wasn’t the best play to work out of its original setting.

Amongst the many strings Northern Broadsides have to their bows, including Shakespeare, classics and new writing, there are the modern adaptations of classic stories, most notably those of the legendary writer/director duo Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson. So it must be double-edged sword adapting a classic play into a new setting for Northern Broadsides if you’re not Deborah McAndrew. On the one hand, they’ve helped build the reputation of Northern Broadsides, which nicely translates into a big audience draw for you. On the other hand, however, their reputation translates into insanely expectations for you to live up to. That’s something I wouldn’t envy anyone for. But this is a challenge long-time Broadsider Blake Morrison took up for Barrie Rutter’s swansong.*

(*: Fine print: This was Barrie Rutter’s last touring play whilst Artistic Director. This doesn’t count his last last play at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. And whatever people may say at the moment, I can’t believe it will be long before he’s acting and directing again.)

On the face of it, Tucaret looks like a natural choice for a new setting. Originally an 18th-century comedy, this is transplanted to early 20th-century Yorkshire. Rose is a young widow who has frittered away her fortune in spite of the efforts for her housekeeper Marlene (which very fitting added early 20th-century Yorkshire no-nonsense). She is courted by wealthy banker Fuller (Barrie Rutter, of course) – apparently naive at first, swiftly revealed to be shallow. However, Rose is more interested in the dashing but deceitful and dastardly Arthur, bleeding Rose dry of her money almost as fast as she can get it out of Fuller. However this setting worked in the original, it’s just as good here.

Continue reading

On Northern Broadsides’ Richard III

Mat Fraser as Richard III

COMMENT: There is no easy solution to including disabled actors in theatre. But what Northern Broadsides is doing is an important step in the right direction.

I’m very late to the party on this one, but one thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is Northern Broadsides’ much talked-about recent production of Richard III. Not so much the production itself, although Northern Broadsides have a good track record of critical acclaim. This time, is was the casting of Mat Fraser as everyone’s favourite Shakespeare villain, because it is one of the few times a person with a visible disability has been cast in the role. So this is a good opportunity for me to give my thoughts on something I’ve wanted to opine on for some time.

So far, I’ve shied away from commenting on plays I’ve seem which include disabled actors in the cast. It’s always worked whenever I’ve seen this done, but it is difficult to put this into a review without making it sound like a review of accommodating an actor with a disability rather than a review of the play itself. I’d find it condescending if anyone reviewed a play I was in saying how great it was that they included someone on the autistic spectrum. However, as Mat Fraser has given a lot of interviews about being cast for this play specifically in relation to a disability, such as this one to The Stage (which I broadly agree with), I think I can safely assume he wants this talked about. Which is good, because although this production may only be a small step in the right direction, it’s an important one.

Continue reading

Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town. Continue reading

An August Bank Holiday Lark: when war was a big adventure

Transitional scene were the dancing morphs into march back to battle

It would have been easy for Northern Broadsides to do yet another play set in the trenches. An August Bank Holiday Lark, however, helps us understand why this came about in the first place.

I’ve never been a fan of making people write plays to “briefs”. Theatre companies do of course have to consider what sells, but I’ve always felt that the more constraints you place on what a writer can write about, the less likely you are to get a good job out of it. Well, one person who feels differently is Deborah McAndrew, who considers these constraints an opportunity for inspiration. In theory, the brief for An August Bank Holiday Lark was quite simple: Northern Broadsides wanted to do a play about World War One on the centenary of its outbreak. In practice, however, it was a lot more constrained. For a start, there are plenty of plays about the horrors of the trenches, with recent successful tours of Journey’s End and Birdsong to contend with. They might have stood out from the crowd by doing a Michael Gove-friendly version where plucky British fellows under command of brilliant aristocratic leaders ensured victory for King George by December 1914, but they didn’t.

Seriously, however, there was little enthusiasm for a trench-based play with a “northern” perspective. The lazy solution – the solution which artistic director Barrie Rutter suspects television would have done – would be to combines stereotypical northern poverty and misery with the misery and subsequent slaughter in the trenches. Then there was another constraint in play – in Lancashire, where this play was to be set, the enduring memory of the war was the Gallapoli offensive in 1915, when the Loyal North Lancashire regiment suffered its worst losses. As a result, a time-frame of 1914-1915 was suddenly imposed on the play. And there was one final constraint: the title suggested by artistic director Barrie Rutter was a line from Phillip Larkin’s famous poem MCMXIV. And it stuck.

Continue reading

The Grand Gesture: suicide is big business

Victor Stark supposedly comforts Simeon Duff.

The latest McAndrews-Nelson collaboration from Northern Broadsides, an update of The Suicide takes a a long time to get going. But it’s worth it for the end.

There was a famous moment in history when a monk set himself on fire in Vietnam in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Since then, there have been many high-profile political suicides protesting against lots of things: Vietnam war, communism, nuclear war, women’s rights, and most recently austerity in the EU. Most suicides, however, are low-key non-political affairs – and such wasted opportunities. This, at least, is the premise of Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s play, The Suicide, where an unscrupulous landlord sells political soundbites on a tenant’s suicide note to the highest bidders.

Originally written and set in Russia, this play originally portrayed Stalin in a bad light. Not because there was anything against him personally, but because it made him go down in a history books as a humourless bastard (on top of less serious charges such as, oh, mass murder). The original play only made it into rehearsals before Stalin personally banned it, and had the director included in one of his purges a few years later. Contrast this to last year’s Northern Broadside pick, The Government Inspector: Tsar Nicholas I, normally a notorious autocrat, thought it was hilarious and overruled his own censors. Anyway, this unsporting behaviour of Mr. S and subsequent Soviet leaders meant the play had to wait until 1979 for a performance. And whilst The Government Inspector has enjoyed endless adaptations on the easily transplantable subject of petty local corruption, most performances of The Suicide remain set in Russia.

But in Northern Broadsides, Deborah McAndrews and Conrad Nelson specialise in transplanting classic plays to modern day northern England, and now it’s the turn of The Suicide to get the treatment. And so, The Grand Gensture begins with Simeon Duff (Semyon Semyonovitch in the original) bemoaning his unemployment. With his wife as the sole breadwinner, Simeon thinks he’s on the scrapheap. He talks about ending it all, and even gets a suicide note on standby: “In the event of my death, I blame no-one.” When his wildly optimistic dream to make it big as a tuba player collapses, he’s really low. Still probably not sufficiently depressed to be that serious but shooting himself, but why let that silly detail get in the way of a good commercial opportunity? Continue reading

How not to raise a son and heir

Rutherford and Son is little-known 1912 gem by Githa Sowerby. Once again, Northern Broadsides has shown how good they are at reviving forgotten plays.

One complaint I frequently hear is that women don’t get a fair crack at having a career at a playwright – one stat frequently mentioned is that apparently only 17% of performed plays are written by women. But if anyone thinks they’ve got it bad now, it used to be a lot worse. Back in 1912, Githa Sowerby fancied a crack at being a playwright. As a precaution against stupid generalisations about women writers, she chose to play it safe and used the name “KG Sowerby”. The good news was that Rutherford and Son was a smash hit. The bad news was that that is was such a hit everyone just had to find out more about the writer. And they found out what the “G” stood for. And the moment the press knew she was a woman, they did one of the most blatant U-turns in the history of theatre journalism. It didn’t kill her career as such, but she never reached the same heights again, moved into children’s writing, and died at the age of 93 believing that no-one was interested in her work any more.

However all is not lost. After her death, her work was rediscovered by a number of groups, and the latest group to rediscover this play is Northern Broadsides, who have quite a speciality in reviving forgotten plays. And, quite frankly, all those people who dismissed her work out of hand were fools, because she paint a very convincing portrait of of life in a family like Rutherford’s. It is widely believed that John Rutherford is based on Githa’s own grandfather, who reputedly ran both his glass-making business and his family with an iron fist. Same goes for John Rutherford, who aided by a nit-picking sycophantic sister, refuses to acknowledge the wife of one son who married a girl from a lower class without permission, rubbishes his other sons’s career as a priest (admittedly not a successful job when the whole town hates your father), and keeps his ageing daughter under lock and key.

Continue reading

A Government Inspector: thank you, City Hall, for being a good sport

Northern Broadsides might be best known for their Shakespeare, but A Government Inspector shows that the partnership of Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson is another priceless string to their bow.

Scene from A Government Inspector

Public sector employers, for all their virtues, have never been renowned for a sense of humour. The UK civil service, for instance, goes to great lengths to say that Yes Minister is in no way an accurate portrayal of a 21st-century government department. (Footnote: I worked in one, and I can assure you the truthful response is: “Oh yes it is.”) But, in fairness, that’s nothing compared to Nickolai Gogol’s experience with The Government Inspector. When he wrote his satire of petty bureaucracy and corruption in 19th-century Russia, it was only due to the Tsar’s intervention he was able to stage it at all. But the royal endorsement didn’t do that much good, because the outrage from His Majesty’s loyal servants drove him to exile within a year.

Luckily for Gogol, he chose a subject with remarkable staying power. The story centres on a provincial Russian town that is corrupt through and through. The tinpot tyrant Mayor taking bribes from everyone, and the poor old shopkeepers at the bottom of the pile forced to pay these bribes in order to stay in business. All is well until word reaches the Mayor of a high-ranking government official coming to investigate the allegations of corruption. Don’t panic – just a temporary alteration to the pecking order. Just pass this man a few non-repayable loans and he’ll be on his way. But we never find out if this plan would have worked, because they mistake a low-grade civil servant staying at the inn for for the inspector – and worse, he’s a complete sponger only too happy to soak up the flattery and backhanders.

Needless to say, this play proves very popular for adaptations, because if you remove the references to Russia and the Tsar and it could be set anywhere. The most well-known sort-of adaptation is the Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors. But whilst Basil Fawlty eventually wises up and the sponging hotel guest eventually gets his comeuppance, the Mayor in Gogol’s play remains blissfully oblivious. Even when the Mayor’s wife and daughter both start fawning over the fake inspector, the Mayor is happy to let him help himself as long as that buys him power or influence. And it get worse. Anyway, the Fawlty Towers episode is just one of many spin-offs, and the latest one is Northern Broadsides’ own adaptation, now titled A Government Inspector.

Continue reading