Ahead of a new decade, Fergus Morgan takes a look at the highs and lows of 2019, from unruly infants and an invisible guinea pig to the nation’s beloved hot priest, Andrew Scott. Amen to that
Sure, winning an Olivier is awesome. Bagging a BAFTA is brilliant. But welcome to the prizes that really matter: The Stage’s Alternative Awards of 2019. And what a year it has been: relentless revivals of Arthur Miller, a batch of brand-new theatres, a few casting controversies, and Danny Dyer returning to his role as a giant bauble.
Most Bewildering Play goes to Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, with its star Cate Blanchett actually having to inform the audience of one performance that the show had ended as they hadn’t realised. The onstage Audi wins Best Product Placement, though the copy of The Stage poking out of Ian McKellen’s bag during his one-man show came close.
Crimp’s work also vied for The Quentin Letts Award for Publicly Funded Play Most Likely to Send the Critic Over the Edge – “taxpayers of Britain, be proud that your arts subsidies are being used thus” Letts wrote sarcastically – but the prize ultimately goes to A History of Water in the Middle East at London’s Royal Court. In his one-star review, he bemoaned that he’d rather eat semi-coagulated tofu, and things surely couldn’t be worse than that for ol’ Quent.
In the commercial sector he wasn’t much fonder of “liberated-single-woman comedy” Fleabag in which he laughed “one and a half times”, though, to be fair, he accepted he may not have been the target audience.
Most Brexit Show, meanwhile, goes to Jonathan Maitland’s The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, which was almost as groan-worthy as the political permutations it unwittingly predicted. If only real life had a 15-minute interval in which we could discreetly slip away.
Some fan favourites now. Best Beast was not as keenly fought a category as in previous years. At one stage the judges feared it would go to the guinea pig in Fleabag, which doesn’t actually make an appearance on stage. Salvation came in the form of a strong performance by the horse in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Giselle, as well as a brief appearance by Bailey the Alsatian in Downstate at the National in London.
But the winner was an Akita dog called Flora, who starred in The Hunt at London’s Almeida Theatre. The prize ended one year of hurt for the venue after the duck in its production of The Wild Duck lost out to Mr Jingly Jangly, the serpent star of the National’s Antony and Cleopatra, in the same category last year.
Best Baby, meanwhile, doesn’t go to an onstage infant but to a tribe of offstage tots – the attendees of the parent-and-baby performance of Emilia. These youngsters don’t only make history for attending the first ever infant-friendly show in the West End, they also set the record for the youngest ever audience at a feminist fable about an Elizabethan poet. Let’s face it, West End theatres are built for miniature people anyway.
And they were far better behaved than their slightly older counterparts across the river at London’s Southbank Centre’s staging of Peppa Pig – My First Concert, who apparently stormed the stage to hug the eponymous porker, earning themselves the new award for Most Rowdy Audience.
The Fun Home Award for the Show Most Deserving of a West End Transfer That Has Inexplicably Not Got One Despite Everyone Wanting It To goes to the London Old Vic’s revival of Present Laughter.
It probably wasn’t ever on the cards, due to its star Andrew Scott’s commitments giving out free G&Ts outside Fleabag, converting a generation to Christianity, and convincing a generation of men they might look good in a cassock (I really think I might…), but we live in hope.
The Crossrail Award for Most Protracted Opening, meanwhile, could have gone to the West End transfer of City of Angels, which is set to make the move a full five years after it first ran at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
Instead, it goes to zombie-themed, immersive horror game Variant 31, which had to put its press night back six months, plus another few weeks, to avoid offering ticket-holders “an experience that might not excel in every possible way”, which they ended up doing anyway.
A new award, the Ivo van Hove Award for Most Ivo van Hove Show goes to Ivo van Hove for The Damned, which was basically a two-hour, no-interval bonanza of live video feed and viscous liquids being dumped on characters’ heads. Anticipation is high for his Broadway production of West Side Story, in which the Jets are all naked and the Sharks are live-streamed having porridge poured on their heads.
The Least Likely Writer of a Musical Award was keenly fought between Mark Knopfler, who worked on Local Hero for the Edinburgh Lyceum, and the winner, Richard Hawley. When asked about stage musicals, the man behind the songs for Sheffield Theatres’ Standing at the Sky’s Edge revealed: “I hate them.” Not even Phantom, asked the Times? “No, none of that crap.”
The National Theatre’s two-part transfer of My Brilliant Friend almost takes the Theatrical Marathon Award, with its combined running time of five hours and 10 minutes (almost long enough to fly to Naples and back).
But really, this year there can only be one winner. Hanging up his boots after 50 years in the stalls the victor is, of course, Michael Billington.
Best Title is also a close one. It could have gone to Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats, it could have gone to Ridiculusmus’ Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, but in the end it has to go to Ontroerend Goed’s palindromic play Are We Not Drawn Onward to New erA (read it backwards – see?)
There can only be one winner of the Award for Tiresomely Wilful Controversy, though: David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, which made critics bitterly wait for the curtain and bitterly wish they had been anywhere else.
And that, pretty much, is that. The highlights and lowlights of 2019, definitively. Complaints, arguments and objections can be turned into an avant-garde gig-theatre piece, which will no doubt become a critical smash in 2020. Happy new year.