One of the greatest joys of theatre is its unpredictability: you can stumble upon the greatest shows in the smallest venues, just as you can have terrific nights in the West End, at the National or on Broadway. Or you can take a train to Sheffield and have a great afternoon there, too.
In fact, of course, the pleasure is disproportionately magnified when you’re one of a tiny throng, but there’s also nothing like the communal shared enjoyment of being part of a large audience relishing the same thing, either. In the last week I’ve been one of that tiny throng, crowding into the disgusting Old Vic Tunnels, for Fiona Shaw’s amazing performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but also part of a larger teeming throng at the Roundhouse’s Fuerzabruta, enjoying a thrillingly visceral circus-meets-club experience.
And last Saturday, I travelled up to Sheffield, too, for a superb production of the Lerner/Loewe classic My Fair Lady that reminded one not only of the greatness of this show (which hardly needs affirming), but also the ongoing vitality of our regional theatre when it fires on all cylinders as it does here. And audiences at Saturday’s matinee had paid a top price of £20 to see it, too. (The evening performance was only £10 more expensive). What a bargain!
There’s no way of knowing exactly where theatrical lightning will strike. And it’s one of the things that fuels a self-confessed addict like me; we’re always on the search of the latest hit – not in the sense of a ready-made success, but finding something that provides us with the smack of discovery.
Today I will be hosting the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards at the Prince of Wales Theatre (sponsored by Nyman Libson Paul and supported by Delfont Mackintosh Theatres) in my capacity as chairman of the drama section of the circle, where we’ll be rewarding some of those that have provided us with those hits last year, in nine categories plus an additional special award we’ll also be giving this year. It is always a pleasure to host this event, celebrating as it does the work that has given us most pleasure with those that have made it happen. We are able to publicly acknowledge, in person, how we feel.
But last week I was also on the judging panel of the Offies, the brilliant initiative of Sofie Mason’s OffWestEnd.com website that actively campaigns to increase awareness and attendance at London’s network of smaller fringe theatres. The awards, now in their 4th year, are a formal mechanism for recognising some of the astonishing work that happens in them, and while it is difficult to harness such a disparate set of theatrical endeavours under the same umbrella, these awards have a rigorous process for both nominations and judging that means that they find a way of doing so.
Not only is every eligible production seen by two separate independent assessors, who submit detailed reports of what they’ve seen to the judging panel and propose candidates for the awards longlist, but also those shows that attract particular recommendations are seen in turn by two super-assessors, who undertake to see everything duly noted. The judging panel try to follow them as much as possible to see as much as we can, too. Between us, we’ll have seen all of the longlist nominees. We then whittle down the longlist to a shortlist – just three for most categories, but four each in the performance awards.
As the introduction to the awards on the Offies website proclaims, “The Offies are where you will find the David and Goliaths of theatre pitted against each other with astounding young actors short listed against experienced talents of stage and screen, shows under a railway arch in the same list as shows under a proscenium arch, an emerging playwright up against the legend that is Howard Barker, acclaimed director Sean Holmes sharing the list with barn-storming innovator Mark Leipacher – this is where being outstanding is all that counts!”
It is indeed thrilling to duly see the veteran Eileen Atkins nominated side-by-side with new names who’ve appeared at the Finborough, Soho and Arcola. And it is impressive that shows at venues I’ve never heard of, let alone been to, are included in the final shortlist, like the Tooting Arts Club.
It was also exciting to see Louis Maskell, who I discovered in the Union Theatre’s production of The Fix and who is on the shortlist for best male performance, immediately confirm that startling promise by turning up as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady just days after our judging meeting!
When Andrew Lloyd Webber launched his Jesus Christ Superstar casting search last year, I wrote a column here in which I said,
Andrew Lloyd Webber has often stated that reality TV contests enable people to come forward that he wouldn’t have seen in any other way; but though he might have done well to have avoided Thriller – Live, a quick visit to the Lyric would have introduced him to Roger Wright long before this TV contest. And if he genuinely wanted to see out new emerging talent the traditional way, he could do worse than visit a place like the Union Theatre in Southwark, where my socks are regularly blown off by talent I’ve not seen before. Right now, for instance, there’s an amazing 21-year-old performer Louis Maskell, starring in The Fix. If I can find them, why can’t Andrew, or at least his casting director? Simple answer: because it wouldn’t make good television. And prime time TV casting shows are basically extended commercials for the productions.
The Offies, at least, are now able to acknowledge him on our own shortlist; but he’s already proved himself with his own leap to the next stage by being cast so well in My Fair Lady. The fringe’s role as a training ground is confirmed, too, and it is a great pleasure that we’re able to recognise it.
The judges did note one disappointing fact – we were unable to draw up a shortlist of candidates for Best New Musical, since so few worthy candidates had actually been produced worthy of the title. In the end, the only viable title – Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale – took the award uncontested; as super-assessor Tom Wicker trenchantly pointed out, “the shortlist should be as short as it needs to be”. We are spoilt for choice in many categories, but not this one.
The results will be announced at a ceremony on February 24 at BAC.