The best of NE theatre in 2017 (according to me)

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 30th December, 2017

The List!

Best New Play

For me the best indicator of the health of the region’s theatre is the quality (and, to a limited extent, the number) of new plays being produced. Live Theatre and Northern Stage continue to be the leading regional purveyors of new drama but Alphabetti is coming up very strongly (in spite of being financially so far behind as to be almost out of sight) and could well take the crown if the other two don’t watch their steps!

Yet again this year my choice for Best New Play was at Live, although it wasn’t a Live Theatre production. It was Open Clasp’s Rattle Snake, more than worthily following in the footsteps of the hugely successful Key Change. This two-hander by Catrina McHugh, performed by Christina Berriman Dawson and Eilidh Talman and directed by Charlotte Bennett, was undoubtedly the most powerful piece in a year which included other first class local plays, Curious Monkey’s production of Paddy Campbell’s Leaving at Northern Stage, the revival of Nina Berry’s The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes at Live and Arabella Arnott’s Overdue at Alphabetti.

Best Production

This category takes into account not just the script but every other aspect of a production: acting, movement, set, costumes, lighting, sound and the way in which they all come together to create as perfect a piece as possible.

Following their success with James and the Giant Peach last year, Northern Stage’s Christmas offering, Theresa Heskins’s version of Alice in Wonderland, again directed by Mark Calvert, came very close to stealing the crown but the near perfect integration of set, props and lighting, and the creation of a mise-en-scène that so perfectly reflected the theme of the piece, gave balletLORENT’s Rumpelstiltskin the edge to take it into first place.

Best Director

Another very close-run thing. In April it looked to me as though it would be very hard for any director to beat Rebecca Frecknall’s North Eastern Educating Rita at Durham’s Gala—I couldn’t believe that it could let alone would work, but it did—but then in September along came Charlotte Bennett’s production of Rattle Snake and it is to her, by a very narrow margin, that the crown goes.

Best Actor

This accolade goes to Christopher Price, a well-established member of the NE theatre scene—I first saw him in Heartbreak Soup at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe—and it is awarded for three very different roles this year: in Overdue at Alphabetti, in Twenty Seven Productions’ Don’t Go Outside at the Castle Keep and finally in Northern Stage’s Alice in Wonderland.

Best Actress

This too is awarded for more than one performance, although it could equally well have been for either one. It goes to Jessica Johnson for changing our perception of Rita in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita at the Gala in Durham and for the very different character Belinda in the Stephen Joseph / Live Theatre co-production of Goth Weekend.

Best Designer

This year’s Best Designer is one of the most well-established and respected figures in stage design in the UK, Tom Piper, for many years Associate Designer at the RSC. His sets for the Greyscale / Northern Stage productions of Dr Frankenstein and Hedda Gabler, This is Not a Love Story were outstanding in the region this year.

Best Revival

Tom Hadaway, who died aged 81 in 2005, is one of the jewels in the NE playwriting crown, and one of the newest companies in the region, Blowin’ a Hoolie, chose to revive his 1970s play The Filleting Machine this year and toured it to mainly non-theatre venues throughout North and South Tyneside as well as Newcastle. An excellent production and an iconic North East play—it couldn’t not be the best revival of the year!

Best One-Person Play

I have seen a number of interesting / enjoyable / amusing / moving one-person shows this year but not one has the scope, power and impact of Vici Wreford-Sinnott’s Butterfly, produced by Little Cog in association with ARC Stockton and performed by Jacqueline Philips with a sensitivity and skill which took her to within a millimetre or so of the Best Actress accolade.

Best Children’s Show

It’s almost impossible compare a show aimed at 5- to 6-year-olds with one aimed at 8+, for both the children and what interests and entertains them change so much in those short years. A choice, however, must be made so, although Kitchen Zoo’s The Owl and the Pussycat and New Writing North’s Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo brought enormous pleasure to their very young audiences (and to me!), I have to choose Walter, Steve Byron’s story of a pigeon in World War I at Alphabetti, for its imagination and ability to grip, totally involve and really move its target audience.

Best Visiting Production

This category can include anything from a touring West End show to Grand Opera to something very fringe and for me, this year, although I loved Opera North’s visit to the Theatre Royal with Trouble in Tahiti and Trial by Jury and to The Sage with its semi-staged Turandot, the one which, whilst giving enormous pleasure, broadened NE audiences’ theatrical horizons was Hummingbird by Lecoq-trained Tooth+Nail at Alphabetti, which brought us a deeper understanding and appreciation of physical theatre.

Most Promising Newcomer

My most promising newcomer of 2017 has been part of the NE theatre scene for more than 20 years as house manager for Live Theatre, a job which she ran alongside her other post as co-founder and associate director of the Prague Fringe. This year, however, her career went off in a totally different direction as she left Live and set up her own production company, CaroleW Productions, which brought five productions, including Hummingbird but all quite different, to Alphabetti in November and December. It will announce its second season shortly, again bringing to the region shows which otherwise may never be seen here.

Special Mention

Last year I invented an Experimenting with Form Award because a particular show deserved a mention because it did just that, experimented with form to tell its story more effectively. This year there was a play which made (for the North East at any rate) innovative use of technology and for that alone it deserves a special mention (although it was also a well-written and well-performed play), so I’ve broadened the category to include a play already mentioned as a Best Play contender, Curious Monkey’s production of Paddy Campbell’s Leaving at Northern Stage.

||