Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Tipsy Hippo Theatre Awards 2010

I only started reviewing late on in the year and hopefully the few months’ work I have done will act as a solid template for the future and further development. The categories below have all been carefully considered and the various winners chosen by myself on balance against the other contenders for each award. I will explain and justify why each was chosen as well as saying who and what was. All in all, I think that it has been a good year for the theatre in London as I haven't seen many bad shows at all and I have been lucky enough to have seen a far higher number of very good shows indeed, so all is not yet being encompassed by the popular musical drive. Below, as you may have guessed, are my picks of the year (or at least of what I have seen).

I am already looking forward to moving on in 2011 with a spate of good-looking shows coming to town. There'll be plenty of work for me to be getting on with so I hope that you will follow that through the year and go and see the shows yourselves as well, so that you can understand why I've said what I've said and maybe we can start some form of conversation about a few of them! Bring on 2011, but first, here's the best 2010 offered me:

·      Outstanding Drama
o   Winner: Krapp’s Last Tape

Krapp’s Last Tape was a show that I found hard to review. It’s a short piece and there’s not a huge amount that goes on but everything is of importance, every small detail has to contribute to the overall whole and give a very specific and stylised image. When I reviewed it, I looked back and couldn’t think of a single part of the show that counteracted this prerogative. Everything seemed perfectly angled towards the same goal and Michael Gambon’s performance was equally faultless, every moment being a compelling and powerful expression of Krapp as the character and a representative of humanity. He never fell out of character or out of sync with the show itself and the texture he gave the production added so much that it really absorbed you, made you laugh at the right times and in utter silence you found yourself identifying and connecting with Krapp so that when Gambon’s intelligent and simplistic delivery of the text came you were already wrapped up in his story. Worthy of the award simply because there was not a single thing wrong with the show; everything was not just fitting but enhancing and the overall result was overwhelming.

·      Outstanding Comedy
o   Winner: Design for Living

To my mind there can be little doubt as to what was the best comedy show that I have seen, as Design for Living was just so far ahead everything else. Working from a delightful script the actors to a man brought out the little tricks that Noel Coward masterfully laid into the show. Taking it at a steady but still speedy pace the laughs were regular and hearty enough to be almost too much at times as the cast were eager to move onto the next line which was bound to bring more laughter to the Old Vic auditorium. The characters that were brought to life on stage were also incredibly funny, especially Andrew Scott’s Leo, and the way in which each member of the cast (even the smaller roles) brought their characters onto the stage was hilarious in its own right. The scene that brought this out more than any other, I think, is when Otto and Leo are getting drunk after Gilda has left London with Ernest; a wonderful example of silliness and drunkenness on stage without being too over the top. Everything that should have been amusing was hilarious and you found yourself laughing at things that you didn’t expect to be laughing at. All in all, Design for Living was a carefully directed and well-balanced piece that was, above all else, funny and as such fully deserved the Comedy Award.

·      Outstanding New Play
o   Winner: Onassis

New plays are always exciting prospects as you’re never sure what to expect and an interpretation of the last days of Aristotle Onassis presents the problem of biography straight away; how do you mix the necessary narration with live action? If you want to find out the answer to that then Onassis was the perfect place to find it. It effortlessly weaved the necessary narration between the live scenes and did so by using the supporting cast in a way that gave them the opportunity to excel in character. The potentially confusing connections were handled with a relaxed maturity that meant nobody missed out on the important details and the other scenes were compelling and passionate, drawing heavily on Greek heritage and mythology in an interesting and exciting way. The text itself works on a few assumptions that have angered a few people, namely the assumption that Onassis funded the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, an assumption that Martin Sherman says is true thanks to the research of himself and third parties. Regardless of the more contentious aspects of the story, the play itself is strong throughout and keeps the audience engaged and, as such, does a fantastic service to new theatre in the West End.

·      Outstanding Leading Actor
o   Winner: Simon Russell Beale

There were a number of strong lead male performances that I saw, notable challengers including Robert Lindsay for Aristotle Onassis in Onassis and Michael Gambon for Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape but I felt that Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Sydney Bruhl in Deathtrap deserved the award above the others. The role itself was one of the most demanding that I had seen all year. Keeping on top of the frantically twisting plot is difficult enough let alone the endless meta-theatrical references and jokes as well as the props and characterisation. As if that wasn’t enough he was also the centerpiece of the whole show so the pressure of having to keep it together must have been something that was hard to deal with if recognised. Beale’s performance was composed throughout and at no point did he seem out of his depth, nor did any of his actions spring out of nowhere but everything seemed carefully laid out and planned. As one layer of plot was peeled back, Beale effortlessly moved into the next as if it had always been there. A masterful example of acting.

·      Outstanding Leading Actress
o   Winner: Sinead Matthews

The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic was a definite contender for the Outstanding Drama award but was pipped at the post by Krapp’s Last Tape. One of the finest features of the production was the performance given by Sinead Matthews that was subtle and refined throughout. Having to play a shy and nervous character with so many bugbears and issues, including the limp and stammer, is not an easy task to pull off without faltering now and again. Matthews was unfaltering in her delivery, so much so that I found myself wondering if they had cast her because she already had the limp and stammer or if she was putting it on. Aside from the physical aspects of the performance were the incredibly high-stake emotional events throughout. There were an awful lot of traumas thrown at her that she managed to deal with majestically. She built such a strong and compelling character that she could withstand enough scrutiny to feel utterly real. A fantastic outing.

·      Outstanding Supporting Performance
o   Winner: Angus Wright

Playing the fourth fiddle to the erotic hotch-potch that is Gilda, Otto and Leo in Noel Coward’s Design for Living is a tall order. The performance must be strong if it is to be remembered against the latently funny and compelling main characters. Ernest, however, does have his charms and his wit and wiles and, I’m pleased to say, Angus Wright misses out on nothing whatsoever. His characterisation from the outset is powerful when contrasted with the main characters; his refined and proper nature becomes almost as hilarious as their outlandishness. Throughout he is the normality by which they are measured against and he supports them unerringly with an assured and confident strength. His speech at the end where he has finally had a sufficient amount of them to snap is marvelously acted and is a credit to Wright, showing he can break out from the rigid confines of what is a strong performance indeed.

·      Outstanding Director
o   Winner: Anthony Page

It’s always difficult to spot where the director’s influence can be seen in a show and perhaps the best compliment for a director is that their work is entirely invisible. Anthony Page’s efforts with Design for Living are a paradigm of this, I think. The whole show holds together so well that it never appears to have needed help. Brilliantly constructed and well paced, it moves effortlessly from one moment to the next with a grace that comes from an open rehearsal period and actors enjoying their work. This is the work of the director and Design for Living appears to manifest this naturally, which is fundamental for the making of the very best theatre. It is due in no small part to Page’s skills as a director that this is the case and it is something that I didn’t see in any other show in 2010.

·      Outstanding Design
o   Winner: Design for Living

There can be very little doubt over the winner of this category. As far as set design goes there were only two contenders, Design for Living and Deathtrap. Where Deathtrap had a set that was laden with marvel and majesty that was exciting in every detail, Design for Living boasted three different sets that were a match for it. The sets changed for each location and each time they improved upon the last with stunningly apt set and props for the locations. The studio in Paris is covered in paint and filled with bohemian furniture and close walls whereas the flats in London and New York are open and spacious, the New York set even boasting a large staircase and a balcony overlooking a beautiful view of the city. They really didn’t miss anything and it was all so well done that it was impossible to deny them the award for Outstanding Design.

·      Outstanding Musical
o   Winner: Me and Juliet

It’s obvious from the outset here that I have only seen one musical this year. This makes choosing which was the best a somewhat easier task than if I had seen even one more but, truth be told, I think the results would have been the same. Me and Juliet was a show that was rivetingly entertaining and enjoyable to watch enough to make an impact in the way that I think musicals are meant to. The reason I haven’t seen another musical this year isn’t due to the fact that I haven’t had much time, it’s more that there hasn’t been anything that has drawn me in. This includes the new Love Story and Love Never Dies that, despite some good reviews, fail to ignite any fire of excitement. This worries me as a large contingent of the West End theatres are taken up by musicals at the expense of straight theatre, which is harming the development of theatre as a more serious art form in my opinion. Having said that, Me and Juliet is a wonderful example of what small theatres can do with a limited space and a relatively small cast. This is the next avenue for musicals and the Finborough Theatre is leading the way.

·       Outstanding Shakespeare
o   Winner: The Winter’s Tale

I had previously struggled with The Winter’s Tale, finding some of it difficult to sit through and hard to accept, most notably the end, but this production managed to throw all this to one side and gave a magical interpretation of the text. The set was striking, with the two large bookcases that fell crashing to the stage, scattering it with pages and books that became the scenery working fantastically well. The whole show had the feel of a magical fairy tale that worked in a slightly different world to our own but still had a real and painful grounding, particularly in Hermione’s trial and the fall of Leontes, brilliantly played by Greg Hicks and Kelly Hunter. The whole RSC ensemble came together wonderfully, each actor giving a wonderful character to each of their roles, notably Darrell D’Silva and John Mackay, and even the people with smaller roles such as Noma Dumezweni and Larrington Walker gave everything to the show, resulting in an obviously powerful overall cast. Going in I wasn’t expecting such a great show and coming out I am still taken aback by how good it was. A masterful and intelligent version of a difficult Shakespearean text.

·      Show of the Year
o   Winner: Design for Living

This is the category that overarches all the others, that gives one show the acclaim of the best thing I’ve seen all year. To win in this category the show must excel in all aspects of the production, from the acting and the directing to the set design, the script and materials used to create the piece, the music and even the little things that most people won’t even care about. The show must not only excel on all these counts but must do so in a greater way than all other shows that I attend over the course of the year. This is not easy to do but Design for Living undoubtedly succeeded. Having already scooped up a number of awards in the regular categories above, it seemed difficult to deny it this special award.

And who would want to deny it? It was a fantastic show. The pacing was perfect and everything came together in a perfect synergy. The piece was wonderfully scripted and the actors picked up on all the nuances in the text, bringing them to vibrant and hilarious life. The set design was sublime, each of the three locations were beautifully characterised and each felt far more real than should be allowed in a theatre. Everything about the show fitted everything else and it had an overall feel that was dumbfounding. It just felt great. The costumes and production photos gave a wonderful image of the show as well. It was funny and refined throughout, striking a wonderful balance between comedy and drama with the volatile relationship between the main trio the center of everything.

It was the only show I saw in which everything felt and looked and worked like it was in the right place, like everything was adding to the whole and that everyone involved was having a ball doing it. It was the most open and enjoyable experience of any theatre form I’ve seen and it enhanced the show, making it a confident and self-assured production that gathered momentum as the run went on and improved, which is not an easy thing to do. There was nothing about it that fell short of the high benchmark set by everything else and as such I deem it as deserving of the Show of the Year award. If you saw this show you will not forget it. This was what theatre should be.

John Ord (04/01/2011)

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