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Will Young as Emcee and Louise Redknapp as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

Alison Brinkworth's BTA Awards - 2017

 During a tumultuous year for politics, weather and Hollywood revelations, many people found an escape in theatre during 2017 - and the stage did not let Midland audiences down.

A common theme was a real strength of talent gracing our local theatres and I was impressed, more so than usual, by many outstanding performances. That's by both rising stars and stalwarts of the stage.

So with that in mind, here's my honours for 2017 focussing on the individual standout stars, on or behind the stage.

Best performance in a musical - Will Young in Cabaret

While John Partridge came a close runner up for his sensationally vibrant and funny performance in La Cage Aux Folles at Birmingham Hippodrome, it was Will Young who eclipsed everyone else this year. Young had already received acclaim for the role of Emcee in Cabaret before the show came on tour to Malvern Theatres.

The singer scintillated in all his scenes and embodied the quirky character, leaving the rest of the strong cast in the shade. Young dominated the stage from start to finish, particularly when he sang the haunting song I Don’t Care Much. It was a memorable performance in an excellent production that ended with a chilling finale reminiscent of a gas chamber.

Rising female star - Joanne Clifton

Emerging from Strictly Come Dancing as a professional dancer, Joanne Clifton was in two musicals in the region this year, touring first with Thoroughly Modern Millie and then Flashdance, both at Alexandra Theatre.

She proved she's a triple threat with real ability to act, dance and sing and her confidence will only grow with her experience.

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Joanne Clifton as Millie

Clifton is also likeable enough to be able to pull in an audience, something that she did with Flashdance.

Rising male star - Sope Dirisu

Taking the lead role in the RSC's Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu captivated the audience despite being his debut for the prestigious theatre company.

Dirisu was an electrifying presence on stage, both physically and emotionally, gaining audience sympathy for the hugely flawed Shakespearean character of Coriolanus.

Until now, the young actor had been seen in TV roles for 'The Casual Vacancy' and 'The Halcyon' and on stage last year in 'One Night in Miami' at Donmar Warehouse, but he’s definitely one to watch out for in the future and bigger things are surely to come.

Best male acting performance - Oliver Cotton in A Duet For One

The two-hander Play was at both Birmingham Rep and Malvern Theatres this year and saw Belinda Lang step in late to replace Jemma Richardson.

It was Oliver Cotton as psychiatrist Dr Feldman that caught the eye as he had the harder job of acting through a distinctive part that was silent for much of the time.

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Oliver Cotton as Dr Feldman in Duet for One

Despite this, Cotton’s strong characterisation, perfect timing and gentle ease made a real impact in this powerful but uncomfortable human tale of a woman facing a life with multiple sclerosis.

Cotton gave a masterclass in using much more than words to make your presence felt on stage.

Best female acting performance - Laura Pitt-Pulford in Nell Gwyn.

Playing the famed mistress of Charles II, Laura Pitt-Pulford had a vivacious, infectious spirit in this classy Olivier Award winning production at Malvern Theatres.

The actress shone bright with boldness and audacity that made it obvious why she would attract a king.

Pitt-Pulford also had a sprightly chemistry with actors Sam Marks and Ben Righton, playing Nell’s lovers Charles Hart and the King.

Choreographer of the year - Arthur Pita for Stepmother/Stepfather

Imaginative and exciting choreographer Arthur Pita took his new show Stepmother/Stepfather on tour to DanceXchange in Birmingham following on from his emotionally-charged delight of The Little Match Girl.

Telling the dancers to “thrill, excite and disturb, Stepmother/Stepfather was a refreshing piece of dance like nothing I’ve seen before, powered by Pita’s ingenuity.

He definitely achieved a memorable show that was as thrilling and exciting as it was disturbing.

Dancer of the year - Iain Mackay from Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB).

In his final year with Birmingham Royal Ballet ahead of his retirement from stage, Iain McKay provided audiences with a lasting memory in character led roles.

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Iain Mackay as the Mahgrib in David Bintley's Aladdin

The curtain came down on a remarkable 19 year career at BRB for a principal that has been among their best dancers.

This year, he starred in Aladdin as the evil Mahgrib and other works including the enchanting Still Life At The Penguin Cafe. It was in this that he danced divinely in a romantic Fred and Ginger inspired routine with a Utah Longhorn Ram (dancer Samara Downs). A leading man in every sense of the word, he will be sorely missed.

Mackay has retired to become Artistic Director of the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School.

Play of the year - Nell Gwyn

English Touring Theatre brought Nell Gwyn to Malvern Theatres in the wake of the play winning the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

A complete joy from start to finish, this lovely creation by Jessica Swale cleverly combined a 17th Century theatre with the royal palace for this comedy about King Charles II’s notorious mistress, actress Nell Gwynn.

Fun and also emotional, the script made a very human love story from what is essentially a Cinderella tale of a poor orange-seller turned actress who catches the eye and heart of the king.

Co-produced with Shakespeare’s Globe, Nell Gwyn was by far the most exciting play of the year in the Midlands.

Alison Brinkworth 

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