Roger Clarke looks back at his 2019
Behind The Arras awards can never show a complete picture, by the very nature of the way we work, we all see different production with our own favourites . . . and our own not so favourites.
The quality of Midland theatre seems to get stronger year by year and last year also saw a couple of landmarks at Birmingham Hippodrome in its 120th anniversary year.
First of all it changed from a receiving to a producing house, with a joint production with The Curve in Leicester of the excellent The Color Purple, then it had its first youth theatre production with a scintillating West Side Story.
The Curve has a long history of originating work and the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director held the same role in Leicester and brought that creative drive with her.
It is a drive which has seen the Patrick Centre become the Patrick Studio with more and more performances from dance to plays to musicals and more home produced productions as well as a growing number of associate companies calling the Hippodrome home with the likes of Rosie Kay, Sonia Sabri and Aakash Odedra’s dance companies, Motion House and Katie Prince’s Zoo Nation along with the wonderful Open Theatre which has been creating productions for young people with learning difficulties for more than 30 years.
But let us start with the amateurs, a word which often does not reflect the performance. There are many fine actors in amateur companies who would not look out of place on the professional stage, some indeed have been there and are professionally trained, but acting is a precarious profession with a 92 per cent unemployment rate at any one time. More than half of Equity members, 52 per cent, earn less than £6,000 a year from their chosen profesion.
Youth theatre from amateur companies was in short supply with Stage2 only having one production, Alice, a clever reworking of Alice in Wonderland by Alex Butler who has taken over the running of the company from its founder Liz Light.
It moves Alice to the outbreak of World War II with the teen girl evacuated to relatives in the country meeting a host of characters on her journey who pop up again in various guises in Wonderland.
Hall Green Youth Theatre has come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of years and came up trumps with an entertaining and confident Wind in the Willows. Two classic tales and two sparkling productions.
Ben Tanner as Dan singin' in the rain . . . flooding down from the flies at the Alex
Singin' in the Rain from Stage Experience at The Alexandra Theatre and West Side Story, the first youth production at Birmingham Hippodrome, are sort of pro-am fusions with an amateur cast and professional production team. Both were excellent with superb leads while Elmhurst Ballet School gave us Awakenings displaying an awesome level of dance talent,
When it came to plays there was plenty to admire with some brave programming to break out of the safe bread and butter diet of Ayckbourns and Wildes. Thus Sutton Arts gave us Absolute Hell, Rodney Ackland’s rambling play, really a collection of vignettes of despair set among the disparate characters in a seedy, run down Soho private club whose members, in the main, have managed to avoid being involved, or indeed much troubled in the just ended Second World War.
SAT also gave us an excellent Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s comedy thriller mindgame which kept you guessing from start to finish.
Highbury chipped in with Filomena, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s translation of Neopolitan playwright Eduardo de Filippo 1946 play, which is neither a comedy, but has laughs, nor a drama or romance – I described it as an arms-length RomCom.
Sheffield Road also gave us the Arthur Miller classic All My Sons which 70 years on still crackles with power and is a masterpiece of the playwright’s art with every scene and word fitting together like the pieces in a jigsaw.
Hall Green pushed the boundaries with The Arsonists, a graduate of the theatre of the absurd from Max Frisch which, although written in 1948 in response to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, also had warnings closer to home about Nazism and how ordinary, decent people could be taken in by evil. An interesting if not very illuminating watch.
Always broke Hugh, Dexter Whitehead, and gregariously lonely Christine, Liz Berriman, who owns the seedy La Vie en Rose Soho drinking club in Absolute Hell
Much easier to follow at Hall Green was the old favourite Hobson’s Choice, Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play about the comeuppance of bullying bootmaker and father Henry Hobson
Swan Theatre Amateur Company weighed in with Neville’s Island, Tim Firth’s first full length play, and one with more holes than the boat that sank to open the play, but it was brilliantly done with superb acting which was also the hallmark of one of the real highlights of the year, a two hander from STAC I had never come across before, Barney Norris’s While We’re Here.
The tale of Eddie and Carol is one of lost love, lost hopes, lost people. Eddie, homeless has a few mental issues, the pair had an affair 20 years ago, but essentially it is the story or two ordinary, lonely people - gentle, sad and very human.
Grange Players excelled with their own two hander, John Godber’s September in the Rain, another gentle comedy with heart and then put on the frighteners with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Victorian thriller Gaslight.
Keith Thompson as Eddie and Helen Broadfield as Carol in the wonderful Whie We're Here from STAC
All were productions of note but the best of the small productions was the magical While We’re Here from STAC, the best revival of a classic was All My Sons from Hall Green while the best all round drama production was Absolute Hell from Sutton Arts.
It wasn’t a particularly satisfying watch, indeed it was hard to warm to any of the characters and you could not say it was a great play; it is more a collection of plays running side by side, providing questions but not much in the way of answers, but the cast, 33 strong, hold it together quite beautifully, aided by a high level of stagecraft and some lovely directorial touches. Liz Berriman as the owner, Christine, also takes the award for performance of the year, She was outstanding, on the one hand bossy, gregarious, life and soul, on the other heartbreakingly vulnerable, desperately lonely, desperate to feel wanted and desperately afraid of being alone. Her performance lights up the stage.
Sutton Arts also took the award for best overall production with Guys and Dolls, a show which only served to enhance their reputation for high quality summer musicals. It is a big show for any little theatre and SAT managed it with a big cast, sparkling choreography and strong leads.
Best Small Production
While we're Here, STAC
Best Revival of a classic
All My Sons, Hall Green
Best drama Production
Absolute Hell, Sutton Arts
Guys and Dolls, Sutton Arts
Liz Berriman, Absolute Hell
On the Professional stage LED lighting, ever smaller more advanced radio mics and ever more complex computer control systems have seen a renaissance of theatrical technicals in the past decade or so which can give even the most familiar of shows a new sparkle.
And shows have responded with some wonderful performances. That old favourite Blood Bothers might be 36 years old but Bill Kenwright’s production at Birmingham Hippodrome was the best I can remember – and sadly, a generation on, its tale of poverty and inequality could still resonate as a play for today.
The Hippodrome also saw a return of many people’s favourite musical, Les Misérables as well as the theatre’s first home grown production, in conjunction with The Curve Leicester, with a moving The Color Purple, a harrowing musical staging of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1982 novel.
Thorp Street also saw the first tour of the wonderful Kinky Boots, glorious fun and based on a true story of the Northampton shoe firm which found a new lease of life making boots, or “tubular sex” for drag queens.
Robyn Grant as Ursula and Steffan Rizzi as King Triton in Unfortunate. Picture: Matt Cawrey
In the Patrick Studio we saw the wonderful Unfortunate, a sexy, naughty, risque send up of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It’s an Edinburgh Fringe show which has deservedly found a wider audience, perhaps not one for maiden aunts, but brilliant just the same and ruaway winer of small threat production of the year.
Meanwhile Six, another Edinburgh offspring took to the stage at Malvern, and it is just magnificent entertainment in a sort of who was the worst treated wife of Henry VIII, X-factor style competition. It is refreshingly different, sassy, sexy, witty, funny, original and even manages to keep on track historically. The best new musical for ages and certainly my best musical of 2019 - wonderful, inventive, magical theatre
It is one not to miss and can be seen this year at Wolverhampton Grand 10-14 March, Coventry Belgrade 2-7 June, and Birmingham Hippodrome 21-25 July.
Six of the best when it comes to a sparkling, original, magical musical abut the wives of Henry VIII
An honourable mention as well for Amélie – The Musical at The Alexandra Theatre, which provided an entertaining evening based on the cult French film.
There was another standout musical though, the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, which spent Christmas at the Alex. It was quite stunning and has to take the best revival award. This is as near perfect as you are going to get for a classic musical from the Golden Age.
When it comes to plays there were plenty to choose from with Birmingham Rep, predominantly a play house, as you would expect, having the lion’s share, including my best play of the year, the Rep’s own production of Prism, the fading of the light on the life of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Beautifully written and acted it also had the towering performance of the year from Robert Lindsay as Cardiff.
Runner up was the clever thriller The Girl on the Train at The Alex with honourable mentions for the heartless dog eat dog world of commission led land sales in Glengarry, Glen Ross, also at the Alex, an excellent Educating Rita at the Grand, Wolverhampton along with the superb Rotterdam also at the Grand, exploring gender identity but above all, a story about love.
The Rep also had the best young person’s production with Peter Pan-reimagined. A wonderful reworking of J M Barrie’s tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
When it came to comedy Admissions at Malvern took the prize with this biting piece from Joshua Harmon who gave us the wonderfully, if rather uncomfortably funny, Bad Jews a couple of years back.. Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland star in this tale of positive discrimination in college admissions - which is fine if the discrimination is in your favour. If not . . . well you have another comedy where you are not sure if you should be laughing.
Alex Kingston (Sherri) Andrew Woodall (Bill) and Ben Edelman (Charlie) as their comfortable, liberal world is shaken to the core by positive discrimination. Picture: Johan Persson
As the year drew to a close the Hippodrome took the prize for best Panto with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs not just the best panto of 2019 but the best I have seen for some years.
Contemporary dance saw Rosie Kay's 10 Soldiers and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake with its all-male corps of swans, along with [un]leashed from Birmingham Royal Ballet. as well as the classical and delightful Christmas tradition of The Nutcracker, while opera came from Welsh National Opera.
All in all 2019 was a fine year on the Midland stage with many outstanding productions and a staggering array of talent on display.
There was also a sad note as the curtain came down on veteran reviewer Jerald Smith who died at the end of last year, aged 74. He had reviewed for the Wolverhampton Express & Star and, more recently, its online cousin Native Monster for 45 years. His health had been slowly deteriorating for several years and he suffered a severe and damaging heart attack two years ago.
Despite his declining health though, Jerald continued to review and was always cheery and friendly, with a ready smile, twinkling eyes and willing chuckle if something had tickled him. A lovely man and with his wife of 51 years, Anne-Marie, one of the pillars of the reviewing establishment. Theatre has lost a friend.
Best studio production
Unfortunate, Birmingham Hippodrome
Six, Malvern Theatres
Prism, Birmingham Rep
Admissions, Malvern Theatres
Best family show
Peter Pan Re-imagined, Birmingham Rep
Robert Lindsay Prism
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Birmingham Hippodrome