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Mark Shenton’s week: Celebrating all of theatre at The Stage Awards 2017

The Stage Awards. Photo: Eliza Power The Stage Awards. Photo: Eliza Power
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The new year never feels like it has really begun until The Stage Awards come around. It’s one of the best annual industry-wide get-togethers of the year, bringing producers big and small, directors, actors, writers, agents, journalists and more into one room – the Grand Salon at Drury Lane – for an informal celebration of what we spend our lives making and/or watching, the very best of theatre.

And what’s great is that The Stage Awards honours both the biggest figures of the theatre and one of its unsung heroes. So, on the one hand, Sonia Friedman came to pick up her third consecutive award for producer of the year, after a year that has seen her produce some 16 shows on both sides of the Atlantic including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the London premiere of Dreamgirls; earlier the same day, she’d had an appointment with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace to pick up her OBE.

But for The Stage, at least, she shared the platform with her executive director Diane Benjamin and executive producer Pam Skinner, and affirmed that what she does is a group effort. Sixteen shows in a single year means more than one opening a month, not to mention the ongoing runs of shows such as The Book of Mormon or Sunny Afternoon that need constant attention, too. Then there are repertory favourites, like bringing back 1984 to the West End yet again as she did last year. (Speaking of 1984, could the next stop be Broadway for this show? Now that the book is once again on the bestsellers list in the US, Edward Snowden has reminded us of what a surveillance society looks like and Trump is daily putting into practice the mind games that Orwell warned us of, the timing could not be better.)

The most moving presentation at The Stage Awards always is the one for Unsung Hero – given to someone behind the scenes who makes a contribution but is usually overlooked. So, step forward, Ned Seago, long-time stage doorman of the Old Vic, who also paid tribute to his co-workers – but reminded them whose name was on the award.

The Stage Awards is always an occasion to make unexpected discoveries. Talking to Ramin Gray, artistic director of Actors Touring Company (and whose current production of Winter Solstice is getting raves at the Orange Tree), he told me that he’d seen the original production of A Chorus Line at Drury Lane – as did I: it was the first show I ever saw in the West End after my family moved to London in 1979 from my native South Africa – and it’s the show that informs his entire theatre practice. He also revealed himself to have been a big fan of the Cameron Mackintosh 1987 production of Sondheim’s Follies, admitting to seeing it seven times (I saw it 14!).

Getting out of London

I left London three times last week, though one trip to Chichester last Thursday was strangely enough not to see a show there but to talk to students at the University of Chichester. (And of course the trip was blighted, in both directions, by Southern Rail’s dismal service.) But I also had a very enjoyable trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, this time not to review but on a purely private visit to catch up with The Rover in the Swan, now nearing the end of its run. This is one of the best Royal Shakespeare Company shows I’ve seen in years, yet there are no plans for it have a further life. It’s a shame, and seems strange and wasteful. Time was, the Stratford repertoire would transfer to London as a matter of course, when the RSC had permanent resident London homes at the Aldwych/Warehouse, then the Barbican Theatre and Pit; now the company’s part-time London home is once again the Barbican, but they only cherry pick shows from the rep.

And I travelled up to Milton Keynes for the current touring production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. It had played just the week before in Wimbledon, which is far closer to home, but the producers didn’t let critics in there. So quite a few of us were at Milton Keynes, including The Times and Mail on Sunday. And unfortunately for the show, at least, we had the ‘yellowface’ casting controversy of the previous week at the Print Room ringing in our consciousness, and amplifying this show’s own racial distortions in both its writing and casting.

A double dose of Maury Yeston

Last week I saw not one but two shows scored by Maury Yeston: on Monday I reviewed the London premiere of this latest show, Death Takes a Holiday, in which I referred to the composer’s “particular brand of lush, soaring romanticism”, and on Saturday I caught up with a student production of his towering masterpiece Titanic at Arts Educational Schools London.

Few modern theatre composers write with such melodic richness. Last week I also interviewed Yeston in a live public event after Tuesday’s performance of Death Takes a Holiday, and he told me how, having trained at Yale and then Cambridge University as a classical theorist (he’s a musicologist), he won a prize for writing a cello concerto that was ultimately performed by Yo-Yo Ma. But he told me, “I didn’t want to write the next cello concerto, and the way the world of concert music was, I didn’t feel that the contemporary style was really my own voice, and I decided I would devote myself to melody. It is just as honourable a life goal to write a melody that would last a thousand years as as concerto that could last 20 minutes. And the result is here.”

Not everyone has that rare gift. “Its the way music occurs to you in your head. The simple definition of melody is a succession of notes perceived as an entity. It’s a gift for which I’m deeply grateful, and I worship the great melodists, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Kurt Weill. I simply live for it.” As do I.

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