Roderic Dunnett's view
HAD I been writing this at the close of 2015, I would surely had to pinpoint (now Sir) Mark Rylance’s staging, transferred to the Duke of York’s, of Farinelli and the King.
In Rylance productions there is always that sense of danger, and of mischief, which lifts them above numerous other available shows.
But 2016 compels me to be loyal to my local theatre, the Belgrade, which has achieved so many hits, both with in house and in well-chosen visiting shows, since Hamish Glen took charge and set it on the right path. The play that took me by storm was Ostrich Boys, with gobsmackingly wonderful direction by Tony Graham, and featuring four energised late teen lads, one of whom is the ghost of their lamented friend who has died.
The acting, in Carl Miller’s adaptation of Keith Gray’s splendidly crafted novel, was punchy, athletic, beautifully choreographed (Tom Jackson Greaves was the inspired movement director), in fact, so far as I could see, altogether faultless. I went to see Ostrich Boys with trepidation. What a mistake. I wouldn’t have missed this electrifying foursome for the world.
To my equal amazement, I was knocked for six by Grease, staged and mounted at the Leicester Curve with glorious panache and precision of dancing that makes most TV shows look third rate. All credit to this innovative venue for turning out such a masterly performance with young actors galore – as good, in its way, as a stunning presentation of West Side Story.
Like some BTA colleagues, I have gradually come to realise just what quality and sheer talent goes into amateur productions. My company of choice – though I have enjoyed others (the Kenilworth Priory and Talisman, and Coventry’s own Criterion in a jolly competent in adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities) – is the Loft in Leamington, which seems to put one finely directed show after another. I have been bowled over by The History Boys and Under Milk Wood, and more recently they have returned to O’Casey, of whom Juno and the Paycock was one of their showpieces this year.
Alan Oke as Captain Vere and Alastair Miles as John Claggart,
the devilish Master-at-Arms
in Opera North's Billy Budd
Alan Oke as Captain Vere and Alastair Miles as John Claggart, the devilish Master-at-Arms in Opera North's Billy Budd
But special mention is due, surely, to Three Sisters: The ability of this galvanised ensemble to stage Chekhov in an all but professional production is the sort of awe-inspiring achievement which lifts the Loft onto a level all its own. Large-cast productions have enabled the company to introduce some promising new faces while continuing to field its seasoned regular stars – for that is what they are – such as Phil Reynolds or Jeremy Heynes, but many others qualify for the accolade – so that each staging has a marvellous rich spread of performers who would grace a professional stage.
I deeply regretted missing Oliver!, the Loft’s 1916 pre-Christmas show, not least because I missed seeing Steve Smith in the Alec Guinness-Ron Moody role of Fagin. I have the feeling the role will have fitted him to perfection, as he can easily evince the sleaziness and sinister undertow that would make him a match for those stage and film greats. It was Smith who introduced me to the Loft with his staging of The History Boys. He is patently one of the most gifted directors in the Midlands: it sticks out a mile.
Opera is a speciality for me, and I’m sorry I haven’t seen more this year than I’d like. Longborough’s Tannhäuser was one of the out of town treats, as was Nevill Holt’s handling of The Elixir of Love – though it’s not my favourite work. There were two candidates for the laurels among those I saw: The Merchant of Venice, composed by André Tchaikovsky, a Polish émigré living in England, which I adored because of the immensely sensible libretto, a wise filleting of the Shakespeare play, plus direction by Keith Warner that really made sense of the story, its twists and turns. Tchaikovsky’s music had a good veneer of 20th Century Modernism (Berg, say), but managed to be utterly approachable.
Perhaps one notch further up and meriting the opera award is an offering from Opera North in Leeds: Britten’s Billy Budd. A problematic opera because it relies on an all-male cast, it is a masterly study (after Herman Melville) of grim brutality. The two actor-performers who surely deserve the laurels are Alastair Miles as the baddie – the grim Master-at-Arms John Claggart, who brings about the sacrifice of the innocent boy – and the goody, Alan Oke’s tenor Captain Vere, who is both conscience- and grief-stricken. This was a masterly staging, with tremendous inventiveness in the on-deck and below-deck ship designs. All in all, a thrilling – and searing – experience.
Best Professional Staging: The Ostrich Boys, Belgrade B2
Best Musical: Grease, Leicester Curve
Best Amateur Staging: Three Sisters, The Loft, Leamington
Best Opera Staging: Billy Budd, Opera North at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Best Performers: Alastair Miles and Alan Oke in Billy Budd.