Hairspray at Birmingham Hippodrome in October

Gary Longden's Behind the Arras Awards - 2017

Reviewing theatre is a great job. I still get a shiver of excitement as the house lights dim, expectation tinged with uncertainty. When that goes I will stop.

I have seen two shows a month this year at seven different theatres. As usual, it has combined the brilliant, the good, the average, and the disappointing.

Part of the fun is that it is impossible to know how the show you are going to see will shape up until the lights go down and the curtain goes up.

Looking back, it has not been a vintage year. I have seen several big production musicals, of which only Hairspray at the Birmingham Hippodrome excelled.

The others had merit to varying degrees, but were missing something. Miss Saigon, had fabulous production values, but didn’t move me, the musical equivalent of a Big Mac Meal. Grease at the Wolverhampton Grand succeeded despite two out of the three leads, rather than because of them.

Legally Blonde defied rational analysis, lightweight, unmemorable and disposable, but it thrilled its core audience of young women.

Our House at the Lichfield Garrick turned out to be an inadequately constructed vehicle for the songs of Madness.

cast award

Emily Bowker as Emily, Graeme Brookes as Alan, Elizabeth Boag as Dawn, and Alastair Whatley as Oliver. Picture: Manuel Harlan

As happens every year, the nuggets often surfaced when I was not expecting them. Derby Theatre is a veritable gold mine in this regard. Artistic Director Sarah Brigham has the knack of either directing fine productions herself, or choosing the best shows which she has not time to direct or which are on tour!

Torben Betts' comedy Invincible was the best pro comedy of the year, closely followed by Rita Sue and Bob Too.

 Best amateur play goes to Sutton Arts production of Noel Coward’s The Vortex, best amateur comedy I saw was Trinity Players Allo Allo.

The production which surprised and delighted me most was Around the World in Eighty Days at Derby Theatre.

Inventive, engaging and very funny, it combined physical theatre, slapstick, improvisation with a very strong narrative plot. It is not a straight comedy, not a straight drama, more a comic drama. It was the best show I saw all year so placed it in the drama section as it had to go somewhere.

Evita touring at the Wolverhampton Grand, reminded me what a good musical it is. Emma Hatton as Eva struggled to match the heights that the last touring Eva did when played by Madelena Alberto , but Gian Marco Schiaretti as the Narrator was an upgrade on Marti Pellow from that production, a casting score draw.

Children’s theatre relentlessly improves, and I have a number of grandchildren to call upon for no- holds- barred reviews. Monstersaurus at Derby came top by a very long way. However an honourable mention needs to go to Sarah Brigham's Peter Pan at Derby Theatre. A great production, it moved my fellow reviewer, four-year-old Jacob, to yell out loud: “I hate you Captain Hook" after a particularly dastardly deed. When you can stir a four-year-old in act two, you know you are doing just fine

Wolverhampton Grand continues to combine a strong programme with impressively revamped front of house bar areas. Adrian Jackson, Artistic Director, is a shrewd and accomplished operator.

The Lichfield Garrick is in a state of artistic flux at the moment as it wrestles with adjusting losing its council funding. Its community production of The Dreaming, a Midsummer Night’s Dream hybrid, impressed.


Christopher Commander as Nicky in The Vortex at Sutton Arts

Its spat with local theatre companies over increased prices was a shame, as is a surge of one night music acts at the expense of multi nights of drama. It is a fine theatre, I hope it finds its financial and artistic feet again soon.

The New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham had a strong 2017. I was pleased to be able to see The Crucible again, but this time the production and casting, not the play, failed to hit the heights I had anticipated.

Sutton Arts and Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield continued to produce amateur theatre of the highest calibre, often championing the virtuous at the expense of an easy box office win.

The Vortex at Sutton Arts is an easy winner as best amateur drama driven by a compelling performance by Christopher Commander.

Best Pro Musical: Hairspray – Birmingham Hippodrome

Best Am Musical – The Dreaming, Lichfield Garrick

Best Pro Comedy – A tie between Invincible / Rita, Sue & Bob Too – Derby Theatre

Best Am Comedy – Allo Allo – Trinity Players, Sutton

Best Pro Drama - Around the World in 80 Days, Derby Theatre

Best Am Drama – The Vortex, Sutton Arts

Best Children’s Show – Monstersaurus, Derby Theatre

Best Amateur Performer – Christopher Commander as Nicky Lancaster in the Vortex

Best Pro performance – Michael Hugo as Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days

Best programme of the year - Derby Theatre

Gary Longden 

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