Roger Clarke looks back at 2018

There have been many memorable productions in the past year and it is particularly noticeable how set and lighting designers are realising the possibilities of the ever more exciting developments in computerised  LED lighting. The technical side of theatre is often forgotten by audiences - unless it goes wrong - but, allied to imaginative direction, it can transform a show.

Equally impressive was the high standard of many amateur productions which can safely be regarded as serious theatre, as well as the courage of amateur companies to put on less familiar works. 


Picking the best can be difficult but if we divide theatre up roughly into comedy, drama and musicals then there are a number of contenders for best comedy, with Benidorm, at the Alex, sneaking up in the rear, as one might say.

Then there was The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Rep, Art and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Hippodrome. All fine productions and all funny – but raise your flagon of sack to the winner, The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC.


Sir John Falstaff played by a well-padded David Troughton, wooing the lovely . . . and rich Mistress Ford, played by Veth Cordingy in

The Merry Wives of Windsor. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Shakespeare purists were split; some saw it as it would have been in the times of The King’s Men in 1604, bawdy and with heckling the order of the day. Others saw it as devaluing one of the Bard’s works with cheap laughs and even throwing in community singing! Personally, I found it gloriously funny and chuckled all the way home – I think it is a performance that would have delighted old Bill and will certainly open the minds to the possibilities of Shakespeare of anyone who thinks its old, dull and boring.

Drama saw some fine productions starting with the National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, which deserved an award for making Ibsen accessible to a modern audience.

The Rep followed that with a revival of their Brief Encounter production and an excellent tale of small time gangsters, an adaptation of Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock

It has been a fine season in Centenary Square with a rich vein of productions which also saw an excellent Quartet, the stage debut of grumpy detective Rebus and Rattigan’s 1946 classic The Winslow Boy. In most years the winner would have been from the Rep and it would have been a close run thing. 

war horse18

War Horse at Birmingham Hippodrome

But for shear theatre magic, innovation and spectacle the National Theatre’s War Horse at the Hippodrome wins by a head. It might be a second tour, but it is still a piece of ground-breaking theatre.

Musicals has plenty of contenders; Madagascar at the Alex was a delightful, colourful and charming family production while the Rep, again, had a splendid Wizard of Oz which had me enjoying a stage adaptation I usually hate. At the Hippodrome they raised the Titanic as a spectacular, classy musical, while An Officer and a Gentleman was up where he belonged in a faithful adaptation in early summer

When the fat lady sang, though, it had come down to three contenders; the Hippodrome had the RSC’s Matilda, on her first tour after eight years in the West End, while Fame at the Alex, had injected new life and heart into a tired musical, and again, at the Alex, we had Sting’s The Last Ship, about the decline of the shipbuilding industry in Walsend. It’s a musical full of heart and feeling, and good music which is not just there to separate the talking bits but always takes the story forward. It’s new, it’s original

There were some delightful family shows from Madagascar and Matilda on main stages through to studio productions with Holiday at Derby, Emily Brown and The Thing at the Hippodrome to the charming Penguins at The Rep.

Matilda takes the big stage honours for the splendid adaptation of Roald Dahl’s dark novel while Emily Brown had all age groups enthralled in the Patrick Centre.



BRB's Romeo and Juliet

Opera is really down to Welsh National Opera who among the usual suspects also had a marvellous piece of all female entertainment, laced with some facts, to mark the centenary of women getting the vote – so give your votes to Rhondda Rips It Up! From WNO at midland arts centre.

Similarly, with dance where BRB dominate with Romeo and Juliet a favourite in last year’s productions.

As for Pantos . . . you have a choice of Peter Pan at the Hippodrome and Sleeping Beauty at the Grand, both funny, both entertaining with the Grand, with Sooty, probably having the edge for younger children, and Pan winning out on the spectacle. We’ll call that one a draw.

Finally, in professional theatre, a special award to Roxana Silbert, Birmingham Rep’s artistic director since 2012, who is leaving for the same role at Hampstead Theatre in Spring. She has been responsible for either creating, commissioning or bringing in some wonderful productions and will be missed.


Roxana Silbert


In amateur theatre the word has unwarranted connotations, confusing amateur with amateurish. True, there are some productions and some performances which are worthy and commended perhaps more for their dedication than talent, but there are also productions which are amateur only insomuch as no one is paid.

Sutton Arts gave us a stunning And Then There were None, a classy production of Agatha Christie’s most popular thriller while Hall Green had the lady herself in Philip Meeks’ play about Margaret Rutherford, who became the most famous Miss Marple, and her relationship with Christie, in Murder, Margaret and Me.

And pushing up the body count even further we had the quite, festive thriller At The Sign of The Crippled Harlequin at the newly reopened Grange Playhouse, while Highbury have a three hander which ends up as one man and a dog, or in this case one woman and a ghost in Alan Aykbourn’s Snake in the Grass.

Mint Theatre Society, taking theatre out to the people on social clubs and community halls, gave us John Godber’s Lucky Sods about serial lottery winners and it was Godber’s turn again with the trio of coach drivers in Men of the World from Swan Theatre Amateur Company.

Another double up was Ronald Harwood’s Sir Donald Wolfit inspired play The Dresser with two excellent productions, first from Mint and then, as the first production in the newly refurbished Playhouse, a five star version from Grange. Sutton Arts contribution was a quite superb production of Birdsong which would have been a worthy winner in most years.

All outstanding but two plays had that indefinable something that lifted them to another plane, so much so that they both deserve awards. The first was Highbury’s Beryl, the docu-drama about cycling legend Beryl Burton. Never heard of her? Despite all the Olympic and Tour de France cycling success by British riders in the last few years, she was probably the greatest woman cyclist of them all.


Martin Bourne excelled as C S Lewis in Shadowlands

Maxine Peake’s play is funny, informative and full of heart and a cast of four, with four bikes, brought it to brilliant life. In any other country Burton would be a national hero, here she is . . .who? The play in its small part redresses the balance and wins the best little theatre play award.

The Swan Theatre in Worcester is a large stage and a large 350 seater auditorium to fill for the Swan Theatre Amateur Company but they managed it with a masterful and moving Shadowlands, William Nicholson’s play about the romance between Oxford don C S Lewis and American author Joy Gresham.

Lewis was best known for the Chronicles of Narnia but was also a world renowned Christian apologist, defending Christianity from its detractors, but at the same time questioning his own faith and beliefs. I saw the play at Birmingham Rep a couple of years ago and this amateur production was it’s equal.

The best musical had fewer contenders with Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre Company giving us a splendid The Full Monty, the American version as the Sheffield based version has not yet been licence for amateur use – which did confuse a few in the audience at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall.


Living forever - the cast of Sutton Arts' Fame

But once again Sutton Arts Theatre came up trumps again with a scintillating production of Fame, with an impressive number of youngsters in the big cast.

As for comedy, Hall Green had two contenders with One Man, Two Guvnors and The Vicar of Dibley at Christmas, Lucky Sods, again from Mint and Men of the World for STAC.  For sheer please and enjoyment it had to be Vicar of Dibley.

Only two pantos, Dick Whittington at Sutton Arts shading Babes in the Wood, which can take heart from being the best panto form Hall Green for some time.

All in all a great year – and here’s to the next one.



Best Comedy

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC

Best Drama

War Hose – Birmingham Hippodrome

Best Musical

The Last Ship – The Alexandra Theatre

Best Family Show (main house)

Matilda – Birmingham Hippodrome

Best Family Show (studio)

Emily Brown and the Thing – Birmingham Hippodrome

Opera award

Rhondda Rips  It Up – WNO Midland Arts Centre

Best Dance

Romeo and Juliet – BRB, Birmingham Hippodrome

Best Pantomime (joint)

Peter Pan – Birmingham Hippodrome

Sleeping Beauty – Wolverhampton Grand

Special Award for services to West Midlands theatre

Roxana Silbert


Best Play (Little Theatre)

Beryl – Highbury Theatre Centre

Best Play (large Theatre)

Shadowlands – Swan Theatre Amateur Company

Best Musical

Fame – Sutton Arts Theatre

Best Comedy

The Vicar of Dibley at Christmas – Hall Green Little Theatre

Best Panto

Dick Whittington – Sutton Arts Theatre

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