Theatre is all about the craft, excellence and… awards ceremonies. Ahead of the Olivers and after the Evening Standard Awards, Tim Bano takes a sideways look at the highs and lows of this year
Let’s start big. Our colleagues in Her Majesty’s national press have been taking regular pops at Rufus Norris’ National Theatre since he took over in 2015. This year there was ammunition for both his detractors and his supporters.
The Olivier proved a millstone with three clunkers, and a collective raspberry from the critics was not the end of the pain for those involved.
The standout was Common. It was vying for most walk-outs at the interval or best malfunctioning puppet on press night, but instead takes the award for Publicly Funded Play Most Likely to Send the Daily Mail’s Critic Over the Edge. Poor Quentin Letts railed and frothed at this “pseudish, muffled dud”, slamming it with the worst insult the paper can publish without starring letters out: “codswallop”. Brutal.
Then there was Salome, which takes the prize for Most Pretentious Play That Somehow Managed to Have an Even More Pretentious Trailer with the lead having sand poured on her head for no discernible reason, and a fat lot of good it did for sales. Saint George and the Dragon wasn’t all bad, unlike poor John Heffernan’s haircut, which wins him the Worst Theatrical Barnet of the Year award.
But all was not lost. Rufus also put on two of the biggest, most anticipated moments in the theatrical calendar: Angels in America and Follies. Both attracted colossal attention, and both lived up to the hype. Five stars for chutzpah, Rufus, and for pulling it off.
Follies, with its 160 costumes and 129 pairs of tap shoes, wins Best Bling for the 600,000 Swarovski crystals that gave the production its extra sparkle.
In commercial theatre, Hamilton earned the accolade this year for both the Smoothest Ticket Buying Experience in recent memory – The Stage even went as far as calling it “relatively stress free”, in a flash of unbridled enthusiasm – and the Worst Ticket Reallocating Experience, when the cancellation of its first previews caused an outbreak of mass panic from audiences and cack-handedness at the box office.
Some may believe the opening of Hamilton is the most significant moment for musical theatre in 2017. Others disagree, believing that the Musical Moment of the Year was achieved by putting Meat Loaf’s hits on to the stage of the Coliseum. A match made in heaven for the bat out of hell.
It was a musical that sailed between extremes, summed up in Clare Allfree’s review for Metro, which simultaneously gave the show one and five stars, saying: “It’s so brilliantly awful it teeters on awfully brilliant.”
But its true achievement was the Award for Bringing in a New Audience. It is unlikely that so many middle-aged men and women in leather jackets with patches on the back will ever be seen in an opera house ever again.
From pleasures of the soul to those of the stomach: the Best Interval Grub served in any theatre this year goes to the Bridge Theatre’s exquisite madeleines. The joy of exiting the auditorium at the interval and hitting a curtain of sweet patisserie smell instead of stale beer was unparalleled. And then that first bite: through the ever so slightly crisp crust to a still warm, gently moist centre… well, it’s bordering on the ineffable. Nothing can match it for theatre sundries. Not even the hard-rocking merch sold at Bat Out of Hell.
It was certainly a bestial year, with several productions bringing in a supporting cast of furry friends – anyone who remembers The Audience’s corgi knows nothing makes a British theatre audience lose its mind like seeing an animal on stage. This year there was the open casting call for more theatrical dogs in Legally Blonde the Musical, then there were the rabbits and the unfortunate goose in The Ferryman and the chicks in This Beautiful Future at the Yard.
But 2017 really belonged to the goats, who win the coveted Best Beast award. Not only Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia, Ben Duke’s Goat for Rambert and The Kid Stays in the Picture (okay, that wasn’t actually anything to do with goats). Goatiest of all was the Royal Court’s Goats, which wholeheartedly lived up to its title. In fact the best thing about the play was the performances of Emilia, Beauty, Leigh, Eek, Squeak and Belle. Five stars for the goats on their acting debut. They come from the same acting stable (not sorry) as The Ferryman’s goose.
This year’s one-star theatre cat is the Bush Theatre’s Marley, for doing a runner during refurbishment work, but the award for Best Theatre Cat goes to the Bush’s other cat Pirate for sticking around (as well as for having more followers on Twitter).
Have we reached the apex of bad audience behaviour yet? Please say we have. It can’t get any worse than this year, and the Old Vic seems to have been particularly affected with a mid-show vaper at Woyzeck, and an alleged physical assault at A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol! Of all the shows to assault someone at, the offender picked a play about learning to love one’s fellow man. The puncher gets the Award for Extraordinarily Missing the Point of the show he was seeing.
It was also a year for numb bums. Why did 2017 decide excessive running times were a good thing? Fair enough, it worked for Angels in America, which takes the Theatre Marathon award for its two parts storming past the seven-hour mark. But six hours of My Brilliant Friend at the Rose in Kingston? The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cicero trilogy?
There was another six hours for Alan Ayckbourn’s two-parter The Divide at Edinburgh International Festival – at least four more hours than stars given in most reviews. Though they have revealed it will now only be one part when it arrives next year at the Old Vic, and presumably considerably shorter.
Even the Almeida’s heavily feted Hamlet ran at a whopping three and a half hours. In fact, the Almeida wins the Award for Consistency in the long-distance category, programming only one play under 150 minutes this year.
For a splash of strange beauty, there were the Royal Court season poster designs, inspired by old Penguin book covers, while the Bare-Faced Cheek Award in Marketing goes to Craft Theatre, who removed the words “lack of” from the line in The Stage’s review that criticised a “spectacular lack of intellectual rigour” and slapped it on its poster.
Finally, honourable and dishonourable mentions. The Most Unnecessary Theatre Moment of 2017 was the decision to allow audience members to expose their, er, own members at a ‘clothing optional’ performance of Hair.
Sweetest Use of Chocolate on stage was Romantics Anonymous with sweets handed out to the audience, just about erasing our memories of Cruellest Use of Chocolate on stage in Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed in 2016.
So looking back at theatre in 2017, how to sum it up? If it were a play, what would it be called? The Ubiquity of James Graham? Hamilton Cometh? On balance, the year in theatre has to go to the goats. Here’s to Capricornucopia, and to 2018.