A year on from the perhaps somewhat inauspicious beginnings of Tipsy Hippo Theatre Reviews just over a year ago we have come on leaps and bounds and it's once more time for us to pause for thought and take a look back at the best of what the last year has given us here at Hippo HQ. In working out where the various awards below are most deserved one thing has stood out in every category and that is that there is stiff competition in every sphere. This is a wonderful thing. The diversity that is present in the West End and Off West End venues is undeniably brilliant and arguably the best in the world but the fact that there is so much high quality diversity makes it something truly special and something that we can all be very excited about with years and years ahead of us to enjoy what the British Theatre industry has to offer.
It's been incredibly difficult narrowing down the forty-odd shows we've seen this year to just a few nominees and then further to just a few winners (the lead actor category provided a particularly taxing quandary) but all has now been decided and agreed upon. Last year when we had the 2010 Awards we were still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and hadn't seen very much at all. The categories that were devised took a lot of painstaking thought but were very much a rough first stab in the dark. Come now and the end of 2011 and actually, having now seen a full year's worth of theatre (more or less) and it still appears to work just as well so we're sticking with the same system. If you want a proper introduction to the categories and the system by which shows become eligible then please take a look at the Theatre Awards page. Enough waffle; to the business!
· Outstanding Drama
o Winner: Jerusalem
There really can't be much argument about this. Jerusalem is in every way a modern classic. Every now and again you experience something that you know you'll be telling your children about, that you know is a moment that will make a lasting impact on not only your life but the lives of a great many people. Everyone in theatre will know of Jerusalem because it really is that good. Again and again I mention and explain in no doubt tiresome length that the key to good theatre is balance, a balance between great acting, great set design, great script, comedy, tragedy, elation, grief; a great show should include a bit of everything and have it in a balance that puts everything in a place the audience can see, understand and engage with. If you're ever in doubt how this is done then the answer is in Jerusalem. Some will no doubt criticise it for its length and yes, it is long. However, it's no longer than a Shakespeare play and I can't imagine why anyone would want it to be shorter having seen it. They may go in with the length in the back of their minds but it's soon forgotten and once they leave they'll be wanting more. Outstanding really is the word.
· Outstanding Comedy
o Winner: Noises Off
Farce is difficult. Farce within farce is monstrous. However, Michael Frayn's Noises Off has touched on a piece of genius and well deserves its place in the history of theatre. Farce is renowned for being difficult to achieve the right balance with. Backstage drama or comedy is also notoriously difficult and somehow both have been thrust together by Frayn with a careful and composed touch. Enjoyably, this production by the Old Vic has a similar level of craft about it, director Lindsay Posner deserves special recognition for this. As with Jerusalem above, the balance here is carefully crafted. There is a balance between the exposure the various characters have, a balance between the comedy, the farce, the seriousness, the drama and above all, the onstage and backstage elements. There is a touch of brilliance about the set and the window one can see through during the second act. As appear typical with the Old Vic, it's just a very talented show indeed put together with nous and foresight. I was crying with laughter towards the end as it all slowly built up and I particularly admired the expansion of the mayhem to the audience as well, giving us a programme for the show within the show in the programme for the show (yes, it's confusing isn't it?) and the music falling apart and the curtains falling down. It's just fantastic.
· Outstanding New Play
o Winner: One Man, Two Guv'nors
It's been a busy year for Richard Bean, with The Heretic at the Royal Court at the start of the year and then One Man, Two Guv'nors doing so well on every level. Now set for yet another West End transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket that will see it remain in the West End for a few more months at least (and that's no bad thing at all) as well as a transfer over the pond to Broadway it can't be denied that it's a phenomenon. Bean's reworking of the classic Goldoni Commedia dell'Arte play The Servant of Two Masters is a wonderful example of how to break the fourth wall (or at least appear to) and allows a brilliantly comic persona such as James Corden to really enjoy himself, which makes everything worthwhile. The script itself isn't doing a huge amount but then to do a huge amount would be to ruin the play and it very masterfully doesn't do that. He's not trying too hard to be funny, he's not trying to hard to make a point, as I thought he was guilty of in The Heretic. Here he is sitting back, confident in the material and rightly so.
· Outstanding Leading Actor
o Winner: James Earl Jones
This is the hard one. The two contenders that are vying for the spot are Mark Rylance for Jerusalem and James Earl Jones for Driving Miss Daisy. It's not an easy choice at all. In the end we've gone for James Earl Jones. Rylance's portrayal of Rooster Byron is phenomenal, it really is. There isn't a moment that you don't feel the character on the stage is alive and brimming with vitality and weakness in equal measure. It's a stunning performance that will stop you dead. Jones, however, delivers something quite different. His character is quiet, humble and set in his ways. You don't watch a vibrant character living his story, you share yours with someone on stage. Jones brings out parts of each of us and does so effortlessly, naturally and comfortably resting back into the role, relaxing into the deep well of human emotion and experience to take us, to bring us, lead us by the hand through a story that will make you laugh and cry without you even noticing it. That is the majesty of James Earl Jones and that is why he came out on top. He taps into a deep commonality and connects with every member of the audience in doing so.
· Outstanding Leading Actress
o Winner: Kara Tointon
Kara Tointon is best known for her part in Eastenders. I am not familiar with Eastenders but I can appreciate the differences between stage and screen acting and Tointon appeared to naturally cross over the divide in Pygmalion. Though somewhat over-dramatic in her characterisation that was, I think, the director's choice and she took the direction well and ran with it. Moving from the Covent Garden flower seller that she was at the start to the lady she was at the end was a journey that was both entertaining an enlightening to behold. She did the best that anyone could have done with a somewhat one-dimensional script and put herself in a very strong position because of it. Her chemistry with Rupert Everett was natural and she appeared to relish the part. Whenever she was on stage you were watching her, compelled to see how she would develop and change. Other lead actresses this year have had characters and lines that have given them easy opportunity to shine but Tointon does more work here and for that reason pips them to the post.
· Outstanding Supporting Performance
o Winner: Boyd Gaines
Sharing a stage with a great actor can be a terrifying and daunting experience, even if it is someone who seems to be as effortlessly likeable as James Earl Jones. Boyd Gaines is a superb actor and a Broadway legend in his own right but here he found himself play not second fiddle to Jones but also to Vanessa Redgrave, another theatre great. There was no trace of it in his performance, however, and his part in Driving Miss Daisy is key to the whole show. He was comfortable, even natural, on the stage and was both a figure of resentment and empathy, often in the same moment. To handle such a situation as this with the poise and composure that he did is impressive in itself but the fact that he delivered such a top class performance as well, a performance that on its own put him at the top of our shortlist for this award, is magnificent. A truly deserving winner.
· Outstanding Director
o Winner: Ian Rickson
I suppose when a project like Jerusalem lands on your desk (or perhaps your email inbox in our increasingly digital age) you know you're onto a winner. I imagine you also know that you're in for a hell of a lot of work to make it everything it should be and not let anyone down, not to let such a golden opportunity pass you by. There must have been pressure on Rickson's shoulders like Atlas but whether he was aware of it or not it doesn't show in the final piece at all. As explained above, the balance is perfect and this is a directorial achievement more than anything else. An actor can perfect his performance but a director has to tie all the actors together, tease their best performances out of them, tie them together and then put them together with the script, the set, the props, the space, the audience and everything else that makes a production. Everything on the stage was in place and there for a reason. Everything just felt right, like all was how it should be and the performances rallied around each other and hit home, Mark Rylance in particular. Rickson has a very real achievement in directing such a show as this.
· Outstanding Design
o Winner: Noises Off
Noises Off appeared to build on the earlier work by the Old Vic on A Flea in Her Ear. The feel of both productions is very similar, only that Noises Off is a damn sight better. The design is intelligent and accommodating. The entire set is revolved 180 degrees in the interval and again in a second shorter break. This is achieved I'm sure with no small effort but it works well. The stage side feels like a small company's set and the backstage side also feels like backstage normally does, completely undermining the image pained by the stage side. Both serve the purpose that is asked of them wonderfully and accommodate the energetic and ridiculous farce easily. Doors are always a great help in farce. The more doors the better. There are a lot of doors, a lot of sardines and a lot of confusion, all of which is reliant at least in part on the set working the way it should and it does, not only setting a believable place for all the action to happen, but also enhancing it along the way and that is the hallmark of a great set design.
· Outstanding Musical
o Winner: Matilda
Although there is the noticeable omission here of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which I was unable to see, there have been a few musicals out on the West End. Love Story was one of the worst things I have seen; one-dimensional and unengaging throughout but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg brought Kneehigh once more firmly into the West End consciousness and more than made up for it. Then we were treated to Matilda. After only a few weeks at the Cambridge Theatre, it had its run extended until this December 2012 and there can't be a single person complaining about it at all. Bertie Carvel is nothing short of splendid, giving a performance that everyone will remember for the rest of their lives. The children are remarkable as well, though the RSC has a great track record with young performers so it's not too surprising that they really are that good. The set is beautiful and ingenious, every actor on the stage, every dancer, every singer knows what's going on and is having a whale of a time. The music and lyrics, thanks to Tim Minchin, are hilarious and moving as well as intelligent, even feeling a bit Sondheim in places. There are very few complaints one could have about this new addition to the London scenery and we hope it stays for as long as possible.
· Outstanding Shakespeare
o Winner: Richard III
This year hasn't afforded me as much of an opportunity as I'd have liked to see Shakespeare plays. Yes, there's been an awful lot that has been on that I've missed but I've always had a frustratingly good reason for missing them. However, having read up on a lot of them and hearing about them through the year I honestly believe that Richard III would still have trumped the lot and wound out on top. There are so many reasons why this is the case but in essence it was just remarkably engaging. Kevin Spacey gave a remarkable performance in bringing this tyrant to vivid life and brought Shakespeare's eloquence from the page to the ear in such a way that it all felt perfectly clear and natural. There were so many impressive features to the production, from the use of video and audio equipment to the simplicity of drums and marching and the physicalisation of Richard's leg was novel as well. It felt like they had taken a lot of time in working through everything so that everyone knew exactly what they were saying and what they were doing and when. It all came together as well and held together for the duration. Another famous Richard III.
· Show of the Year
o Winner: Jerusalem
Having already praised Jerusalem earlier on I leave myself with little to say here but it wasn't as clear-cut a decision as it would seem. We had a couple five-star shows this year that haven't even been mentioned so far here, The History Boys and Vernon God Little. Both were remarkable and unmissable nights at the theatre and were in serious contention for a number of awards, only narrowly missing out. Jerusalem, however, surpassed everything else. It was deeper, crisper, neater and more engaging than anything else all year. It had the balance between all aspects of the production, it had everything a good show needs to have and it had them all in a talented abundance. It's a paramour of new theatre and justly deserves the mantle of Tipsy Hippo Show of the Year 2011.
Looking ahead there's a lot on offer in 2012, including Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd in arguably Sondheim's greatest musical and packed seasons in every London venue. There really is a bright future ahead of the theatre, despite the current economic climate. All that remains is to see how the theatres can cope with the financial side. We know the performers and backstage magicians can deal with the rest.
John Ord (01/01/2012)