The Best of the NE in 2016 (according to me)

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 1st January, 2017

Normally this “Best of…” listing is the final page of the review of the year in the NE but this year I’m making it a separate feature all on its own but with the usual caveat: this is not a listing of the best theatre in the North East in 2016 but of the best theatre in the North East which I have seen. It is impossible for one person to see everything and I am very conscious that I missed, for one reason or another, a number of shows which may very well have been in contention for inclusion.

I am also very conscious that I saw very little south of Durham during the year. For various reasons I haven’t been able to travel as far in 2016 as I have in previous years, so this listing covers mainly Tyneside and Wearside, North Durham and South Northumberland.

The only shows which are included are locally produced (or, in some cases, co-produced), using mainly, but not exclusively, local talent. Thus all touring shows from outside the region are excluded, even—with not a little regret!—the touring production of Billy Elliot, although it is written by the North East’s Lee Hall.

This is intended to be a celebration of North East theatre.

So now, ladies and gentlemen, verbose preamble over and now we come to the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

Best New Play

Although there were quite a number of new plays produced during the year, there were three which stood out for me, all from Live Theatre.

First was Alison Carr’s Iris (April), then in November, Shelagh Stephenson’s Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing, and finally, in December, Nina Berry’s The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes.

Separating them was really very difficult for they were all superb in their own way and it took a great deal of thought to make a final decision, but in the end I chose Nina Berry’s The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, a beautifully poetic piece of writing which was also intellectually rigorous—and also (although this did not influence my choice) an exceptional piece of writing for a 23-year-old.

Best Production

This category includes all aspects of a production, not just the play itself—acting, direction, design, lighting, sound, the whole kit and caboodle—and Harriet Martineau was in contention here too, but the winner is Northern Stage’s wonderful James and the Giant Peach, which had so much going for it that it couldn’t possibly lose!

Best Adaptation

Stage adaptations from novels or films are generally disappointing so when one works well it is worth celebrating. This year, there was one which was not simply just as good as the novel but was far better than the film—and a very popular film at that: Torben Betts’s version of Get Carter for Northern Stage. Betts is always worth watching and in his younger days at the Edinburgh Fringe his work stood out for me.

Best Devised Production

For the third year running, we have a winner in this category, which is quite something, for devised theatre can be very difficult to get right and is more likely to be self-indulgent and unfocused than tight and impactful.

However, that definitely does not describe State of Grace’s dance/physical theatre piece ‘And All the Humans Will Be Eliminated’. My review described it as “a fascinating rollercoaster of a ride through six stories” and it made effective use of—and integrated into one whole—the varied talents of the six participants (including Lizzie J Klotz who has just been announced as an Associate Choreographic Dance Artist at Dance City), aided in no small measure by the guiding hand of director Ben Ayrton.

Best Revival

Open Clasp’s Key Change made a big impact when it was first performed in June 2014, and then it went on to the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe where it won the Carol Tambor Award which took it to New York in early 2016. It was later revived for a national tour between October and December (including one performance in the House of Commons), finishing with sell-out performances at Live Theatre. It’s a brilliant piece of work, movingly scripted from workshops and compellingly performed by a committed cast, so how could it not come first in this category?

Best Event

This is a kind of catch-all to recognise productions that don’t fit in to any other category and Southpaw Dance Company’s Faust, which (literally) set the top floor of a Sunderland car park alight with its eccentric combination of Breaking, Lindy Hop and Charleston (and a lot of fire) to tell the story of Goethe’s anti-hero, certainly fits the bill, really gripping its audience—in spite of the cold. And it was part of the Sunderland Stages initiative which really matured this year.

Best Performance

It’s been a year of very good performances but the one which stood out for me was Kevin Wathen’s portrayal of Jack Carter in Get Carter. Worthy runners-up here were Dean Bone and Heather Carroll for their performances in The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes.

Best Director

My choice here has to be Mark Calvert, Associate Director of Northern Stage, for James and the Giant Peach. I have to add that it is also partially in recognition of how superbly, for many years, he directed the Christmas shows for the under-6s written by playwright Susan Mulholland in the venue’s Stage 2, and this huge scale, beautifully written piece gave him the opportunity to really show what he is made of!

(And yes, I know that’s a split infinitive but even I am not so much of a pedant as to reject them completely!)

Best Designer

For the second year running, this title goes to Alison Ashton, this time for her set for Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing at Live, although 59 Productions’ set for Get Carter came close and Paul Shriek and Matt Fox’s work on the Customs House panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, does deserve recognition for pushing the envelope of panto set and costume design.

Most Promising Newcomer

It is always good to see new local talent emerging, especially among young artists. There were a number of new young actors emerging this year and Will Graham (The Season Ticket) and Andrew Reed, who had just emerged from the Customs House Youth Theatre, in the Live Theatre/Paines Plough co-production Broken Biscuits, stood out. Who wins? Probably Will Graham but there’s not much to choose between them, so let’s call it a draw.

Best Visiting Production

Again I am torn. I loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation which united the professionals of the RSC with actors from amateur companies throughout the country—in the performance I saw it was Newcastle’s People’s Theatre—but I was also knocked out by Opera North’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. In the end I went for Opera North, but it was a close-run thing.

The Experimenting with Form Award

How pretentious does that sound? Sometimes, however, a piece comes along that pushes the envelope, not in terms of content or theme but of the actual structure of the play, not just playing with the form for playing’s sake but manipulating it successfully to deepen our understanding of the content. It doesn’t happen often but it did this year; hence my invention of this new category. That play was Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers by Gary Kitching and Steve Byron at Alphabetti in October.

Other categories missing? That’s either because there weren’t enough examples to make a reasonable judgment or because I didn’t manage to see enough examples. Some, however, will probably get a mention in my review of the year which will follow in a day or two.