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Empty Space Peter Brook Awards prove anything but empty

The Unicorn Theatre exterior. Photo: Team London Bridge
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Its time to dust off your sparkly gold stilettos, sequin dress and velvet bow tie – awards season is upon us. Arguably theatre has never had the sort of glamorous gung-ho attitude to awards that film does (although can you imagine how wondrous a selfie with Nick Hytner, Eileen Atkins, Benedict Andrews, Sheridan Smith, Peter Brook, Maria Friedman, Katie Mitchell and the dog from Shakespeare in Love would be?). It’s a money thing: we just don’t have the budgets to be so gluttonous.

It seems to me that every year in some quarters there’s also a slight undercurrent of snobbery about them too – a feeling that they’re vainglorious. Traditionally, I’ve held little truck with that attitude, but this year I’ve tried to see it from both sides and have come to the conclusion that I still hold little truck with it. If pushed, I might admit that lifetime achievement awards are self indulgent, although very nice, because they look backward. But all other awards are vital because they look forward.

Take the Empty Space Peter Brook Awards. This year the brilliant Unicorn Theatre – ostensibly programmed for children but with an output that challenges, provokes and delights all of us – won the top prize just at the time when the current shape of drama in schools has been called into question from within our own ranks.

As judging panel member and Guardian critic Lyn Gardner pointed out, the Unicorn’s award puts the importance of access to drama for young people at the top of the news agenda at a time when it needs to be most.

Moreover I was thrilled to see Pippa Frith Productions at Birmingham Rep Door win the Mark Marvin Award. Of course the £1,500 prize money is going to come in handy but for Frith – an independent producer making vital work with artists such as Francesca Millican-Slater and Babakas – the exposure is going to be 1,500 times more important when it comes to getting future investors and collaborators. Gold stilettos or not, that’s pretty fabulous.

Audience aftercare

While we may not have the big budgets of the West End, what the fringe has always offered is intimacy. Being so close to the performers creates a bond that is palpable, often challenging and sometimes life changing. The need for space to process what’s happening is increasingly important in a society that allows very little breathing space of its own.


Room. Photo: Jemima Yong
Room. Photo: Jemima Yong

Chris Goode has long argued this with reference to the Edinburgh Fringe, but it’s interesting to see the idea beginning to take root. I was chatting with Annabelle Stapleton-Crittenden this week about Room – an interactive piece which sees the audience member blindfolded and encouraged to use their internal visions to lead them into a story where they are the protagonist or player. A team of narrators improvise responses to the player’s imagination in a taking them on a journey that is part radio play, part collaborative storytelling.

Sitting as it does within the subconscious, Room is often an intense journey. Stapleton-Crittenden admits they were very aware of the responsibility this places on them and explained they were planning a dinner after their next performance that would allow a safe space to decompress.  What we may not have on the fringe is money but what we do have is time and I’d love to see more such spaces created.

If you only see five things on the fringe this week:

This Is How We Die
Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die is astonishing; a razor sharp, savagely sexy road trip across America that dazzles the senses and leaves you reeling. Trust me you won’t be the same afterwards.

My Dearest Girls: the Letters Book
Francesca Millican-Slater is the sort of charming, intelligent performer you fall in love with immediately. Her new show – My Dearest Girls: the Letters Book – tells the six women’s stories during the First World War and promises to be touching and full of warm wit.

Another chance to see Chris Goode’s much-lauded Longwave as part of the brilliant house Recommission award. A deceptively simple but compelling black comedy with a tender heart.

There’s growing buzz around Antic Face’s production of Hippolytos. The frenetic young company has taken over the entrance tunnel from South Kensington to the Victoria and Albert but this is apparently no museum piece.

Jonah and Otto
Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto gets a welcome London premier at the Park Theatre. This deceptively gentle play asks potently explosive questions that leave an indelible mark.

Read more fringe columns from Honour Bayes

The Stage Awards 2015