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Gary Longden's view

I AM fortunate to be able to combine my passion for writing and theatre in reviewing theatre shows, averaging about one a fortnight.

As 2015 prepares its curtain call with the pantomime season, I thought I would pause to reflect on my theatre going year, the highs, and the lows.

We are fortunate in the Midlands to have such a thriving theatre scene. The battleship Birmingham Hippodrome attracts the very best, with cruisers The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton Grand providing sterling support.

The Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Birmingham Rep consistently put on an interesting and varied programme, while the Derby Theatre makes up for its austere exterior with exciting, superiorsolace productions driven by Artistic Director Sarah Brigham.

Underneath the professional houses are numerous amateur theatres, village halls and pub rooms hosting a rich seam of amateur talent.

Solace of the Road at Derby Theatre took the best drama award

Once I eschewed the amateur scene as amateurish. How wrong I was. There are numerous actors and directors who could easily have forged a career on the professional circuit, but instead chose different careers, treading the boards for love, and it shows.

The Musical Avenue Q, staged at the Highbury Theatre on the Wylde Green/Erdington border left my sides aching with laughter, with a cast and production values which any professional house would have been proud of.

Murder mysteries and thrillers often work best in cramped, makeshift surroundings in auditoria seating less than 150, where the budget is modest, but the effort and commitment is great, Mindgame by Antony Horowitz certainly fell into that category at Sutton Arts Theatre, with a superb cast, very well directed.

In the professional theatre big names may sell tickets, but they do not guarantee a successful show. The Bodyguard at the Hippodrome boasted X Factor winner Alexandra Burke in the leading role, reputedly earning £50,000 a week for her efforts- and she was worth every penny.

Carrying the show with gusto and talent, at the other end of the scale, the patched together jukebox musical Last Night a DJ

 Saved My Life, a vehicle for David Hasselhoff , was the most ill-conceived and poorly realised project of the year.

The Derby Theatre wins my award for bestjeeves and wooster annual programme. Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd has been unluckily swamped by the justified plaudits for the excellent , more recently performed, Brassed Off which itself offered a spine tingling moment for the ovation for Danny’s speech about community.

Jeeves and Wooster at Derby Theatre took the best comedy award 

But it was equally meritorious, and the care which went into the authenticity of the production wins the day for me. Plaudits for a play about miners in an old mining area are more easily won than for a play about an adopted teenage girl living in the Home Counties running back to Ireland. Their production of Jeeves and Wooster was the funniest comedy of the year, brilliantly produced, and flawlessly executed.

Yet comedy does not require big production values to succeed. It needs heart, and on the amateur scene, my award to best comedy goes to Rachel Green’s production of Grim Up North. Gritty, bawdy, in a pub on a Saturday night, the ingredients were there- and it was very tasty!

Best Pro Musical: The Bodyguard- Birmingham Hippodrome and Wolverhampton Grand

Best Am Musical: Avenue Q- Highbury Theatre, Wylde Green

Best Pro Drama: Solace of the Road – Derby Theatre

Best Am Drama: Mindgame- Sutton Arts Theatre

Best Pro Comedy: Jeeves and Wooster- Derby Theatre

Best Am Comedy: Grim Up North, Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Best annual programme: Derby Theatre.

Highlight of the year: The ovation given, mid show, to Danny’s speech in “Brassed Off” at the Derby Theatre when he realises that community is more important than winning a music competition.

Lowlight of the year: “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” , starring David Hasselhoff. An ill- conceived, opportunist jukebox musical which fortunately you are never likely to see staged again.

My tips for next year? Professionally , I recommend the Rocky Horror Show at the New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, Chicago at the Wolverhampton Grand, Mama Mia at the Birmingham Hippodrome and the Damned United at Derby ( guaranteed atmosphere for that one!). On the amateur circuit, ”See How They Run” at the Grange Playhouse Walsall, “Visitors “at Sutton Arts, and “Doubt” at the Highbury Theatre all have promise for wildly diverse reasons.

Roger Clarke's Awards

Alison Brinkworth's Awards

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