Roger Clarke's view
SO what was the best production of 2016? The Behind the Arras awards are back after another bumper year.
Our reviewers have seen 408 productions, both amateur and professional, which have been seen in more than 50,000 sessions recorded on our website, so there is plenty of choice from West End musical glitz, world class ballet and opera to one man, black box studio productions.
But awards, by their very nature, are highly subjective, as can be seen by how reviews can vary – one man’s five star is another man’s one, albeit only one man’s one, as was seen with the Rep’s excellent What Shadows production, centred around Enoch Powell’s infamous rivers of blood speech.
And with our 14 reviewers all seeing different productions, then even finding a definitive winner is impossible, so it all comes down to personal preference with the awards being the personal views from our reviewers on the productions they have seen during the year.
So, starting with our affiliates, the best musical had to be The Wedding Singer from Sutton Arts, following on from West Side Story last year and building a reputation for a big budget, musical production each summer. It beat a commendable The Wizard of Oz from Sutton from Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre Company.
Director Dexter Whitehead is the driving force there and along with Emily Armstrong also took the honours with the best amateur panto with Jack and the Beanstalk.
When it comes to best plays there are a number of contenders with the likes of Sense and Sensibility or the disturbing Bracken Moor at Grange Playhouse or the surreal Habeas Corpus at Highbury which also gave us a Shakespearean sub-plot with the historical drama surrounding Bill’s wife Anne with The Herbal Bed. Hall Green had an excellent Brief Encounter and a dark Dark Road while Dudley weighed in with the likes of Boeing Boeing and Black Coffee.
Down in Worcester Swan Theatre Amateur Company gave is a fine To Kill a Mocking Bird while Circle Players joined us in 2016 and excelled with both Chorus of Disapproval and The Weir.
Sutton Arts gave us Two and Dial M for Murder. Lots of different productions in different styles, so why not lots of awards. The best comedy was One Man, Two Guv’nors at Sutton Arts, a brave choice following so quickly after recent excellent professional tours, which became a great, sell-out success, but it was a close run thing from a quite wonderful Vicar of Dibley at Hall Green, a certain winner in any other year.
which as a close run thing from a. Highbury took the honours for best play with Habeas Corpus while Grange managed both contenders for best psychological drama with the weird Edith in the Dark and winner Bracken Moor.
Geraldine, played by Ros Davies, tries to get Alice, played by
Rachael Louise Pickard kick started with Matt Ludlam's Hugo
Geraldine, played by Ros Davies, tries to get Alice, played by Rachael Louise Pickard kick started with Matt Ludlam's Hugo
Stage2 are in a class of their own in youth theatre with three excellent productions, A Fallible Lecture, a world premier with Claire Dowie’s Hard Working Families and a quite brilliant and moving Spoonface Steinberg, the finest youth production of the year and as good as anything on any amateur stage anywhere. They are a credit to the region.
We finish with some special awards with best actor going to Jean Wilde for a a quite remarkable performance in an exceptional Shirley Valentine at Hall Green, a strong contender for best play.
A mention too for The New Alexandra Theatre and director and choreographer Pollyann Tanner for yet another stunning Stage Experience production, the 13th, this time Grease, giving Midland youngsters a chance to appear on a professional stage with professional production values.
Finally a special award for services to the Amateur Stage to John Healey and Norma Mason who were the rocks of Moorpool Players from its formation in 1977. Despite regular full houses the company was having difficulty finding enough actors and front of house and support staff – ironically the reverse of the concerns of many a company. So sadly, the company folded this year, bowing out with an excellent Talking Heads played to full house, so at least they went out on a high.
On the professional stage we had a year of great shows. Opening with the best musical Cape Town Opera gave us a warts and all Mandela, which walked the line between musical and opera, at Birmingham Hippodrome where we also saw some big hitters such as the excellent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and first tours of West End shows Mary Poppins and Mamma Mia as well as the fine musicianship of Million Dollar Quartet. The New Alexandra Theatre gave us Chicago for Christmas, as well as the Kinks in Sunny Afternoon and Tom - The Musical, the Tom Jones story.
The Grand had Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Dirty Dancing but the winner was Welsh National Opera’s quite stunning Kiss Me Kate. When opera does Cole Porter it does it big – big enough to leave any mere theatre producer feeling distinctly faint and clutching his wallet. For a start there is a full symphony orchestra in the pit as well as a large chorus of trained operatic singers. A quite magnificent production at Birmingham Hippodrome
The best comedy was a little short on contenders but Crimes against Christmas at Lichfield Garrick ticked my fancy for the title.
As for best play, we had a host of contenders from the masterful Bad Jews at the Alex, an excellent A tale of Two Cities, and a clever An Inspector Calls at Wolverhampton Grand with Birmingham Rep giving us a night of shudders with The Exorcist, political fun with Dead Sheep, the clashes between Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher, Single Spies or, more serious, Single Spies about Guy Burgess and Sir Anthony Blunt, and What Shadows and Enoch Powell’s place in political history.
The winner though is the simplest and cleverest of the Rep’s productions, The Father, with Kenneth Cranham in the eponymous role. It is a play that is moving, disturbing and very human. Quite magnificent.
Kenneth Cranham quite brilliant as The Father, a moving play about dementia
As for best opera Mandela is in the frame again along with Welsh National Opera offerings such as The Barber of Seville and the winner, the double bill of Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana having one of the most beautiful and well-lit sets I have seen – it could have been a Caravaggio painting.
Dance saw Northern Ballet with Jayne Eyre at the Grand and a full season from Birmingham Royal Ballet with a quite beautiful Romeo and Juliet as well as a fine The Taming of the Shrew and a world premiere of The Tempest, but even though it is 26 years old now the performance of The Nutcracker on Press night with its creator Sir Peter Wright in the audience, celebrating his 90th birthday, was something special taking the best ballet crown.
Contemporary dance pitted Alvin Ailey and Coal at Birmingham Hippodrome against Ham and Passion at the Midland Arts Centre with the American company just taking the honours while for children Dublin’s Coiscéim Dance Theatre’s The Wolf and Peter from DanceXchange at the Patrick Centre at Birmingham Hippodrome takes the dance for children prize from BRB’s excellent First Steps at the Hippodrome.
For best production for older children we had 946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips and Treasure Island at the Rep with the adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel taking the 2016 winner.
For younger children there was The Giant’s Loo Roll at Coventry Belgrade and winner How Lion Became King of Tinga Tinga Land at the Town Hall with the Rep coming up with the winner for the youngest children an excellent piece of storytelling with Mavis Sparkle at the Rep.
Best actor award goes to Kenneth Cranham for a remarkable performance in The Father at the Rep.
Special awards go to Lichfield Garrick for its community production of The Hired Man while Birmingham Hippodrome produced the spectacular outdoor installation Furious Folly.