Jane Collins – Adjudicator – BHAC 2018 Drama Awards (12th December 2018)
First of all I would like to say a big thank you to Brighton and Hove Arts Council for inviting me to be the adjudicator for this year’s drama awards. I had no idea what to expect – but if I am honest I think my expectations – born out of ignorance – were quite moderate. I think I thought I was going to encounter a range of massive egos and people playing up to their friends and families. The kind of prejudice leveled against the amateur and characterized by some like Linda Snell in the Archers. How wrong I was. I am not saying there are not big egos in this room and that people don’t enjoy playing to family friends but I didn’t see that. What I saw was seriousness, originality, generosity, onstage and off, and a selfless commitment to performing that is often lacking in professional productions where actors fall back on tired technique.
There’s a popular 19th century adage that ‘good theatre can be made with just two boards and a passion’ –- sometimes changed to two planks and a passion. The phrase may of course originate from much earlier referring to the improvised trestle stages set up in market places to enact the mystery cycles – the passion plays. Or, the phrase may originate in the 17th century when the theatres were closed by the puritans and acting criminalised so it could refer to the secret stages the players swiftly erected in taverns and private houses and just as quickly took down. The eight productions I’ve seen over the last two months have been staged in well equipped custom built theatres and converted spaces in community halls and civic buildings where everything has had to be done from scratch. But although there may be differences in spatial and technical resources, what was common –across all the groups– was the passion. And for that I thank you because this has been a real learning curve for me, a privilege and a pleasure to see your work.
Adjudicating it and deciding on these awards has been another matter! Kate Armes said it would be difficult – but she didn’t say how difficult. All eight productions had qualities I felt should be recognised. So briefly now I am going to recap on my immediate responses so you all get a sense of the high standards maintained right across the board.
The Hurstpierpoint Players produced Habeas Corpus described as an ‘adult comedy’ by Alan Bennet, directed by Jill Heaver. As the title suggests the play’s about bodies – to have a body – it’s about sex – set in the seventies – where Bennet seems, on one level to be commenting on the style of the 60’s and 70’s Carry on films or Brian Rix dropping your trousers White Hall farce – on another he seems to be saying something quite serious about a generation who hit middle age in the 1970’s in conservative little England – having their mid-life crisis worsened by the fact that they feel they’d missed out on the permissive society. This is a really difficult play to stage – there is no set to speak of – everything has to be communicated through costume, character and music – all of which they achieved – brilliantly. The costumes seem to have been a company endeavor. Stylistically the writing demands the kind of playing that we associate with restoration comedy – where actors talk to each other and then turn out to directly address the audience. This is not easy and demands very skillful playing. It is difficult to pick out individuals but Graeme Muncer held it all together as the never-say-die Dr Wicksteed, Josie Porter was great as Lady Rumper, and Lyn Snowden was unforgettable as a transformed Connie Wicksteed in her Barbara Windsor wig. Jan Bell as Muriel Wicksteed, Dr Wicksteed’s long suffering wife, gave a really bold and brave performance which made me think she would make a fantastic Lady Wishfort – in William Congreave’s Way of the World.
A Steady Rain by Keith Huff is a more recent play, a two-hander notable for its staging on Broadway in 2009 starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. From Broadway to Burgess Hill is no distance in terms of the quality of this production, directed by Sean Lippett-Fall for the Burgess Hill Theatre Club. The play is a duologue featuring two Chicago cops – it’s about male friendship and shifting power relations. For me it is also about people being taken over by events, in a violent world, they no longer understand – It is also about small kindnesses and the strangeness of passion. It was staged with the audience on three sides in what appeared to be a community hall on a small bare thrust stage with just two chairs. What was extraordinary about this production was the way Sean and his team produced a continuous downpour on the stage of ‘steady rain.’ I have to admit to begin with I thought this was ‘tricksey’ and was going to interfere with my absorption in the story and the acting. But as the play progressed and the performances got more intense – I’ll talk about the acting in a minute – I realised this was a master stroke of design. The rain became like another character, a constant irritant – racking up the tension and transforming the space. It was a scenographic coup de theatre and I congratulate the technical team for their achievement. The Chicago cops, Joey played by Ben Pritchard and Denny played by Culann Smyth, were accent pitch perfect and under the assured direction of Sean Lippett-Fall both gave truly outstanding performances. This was fine acting and they worked together with an intensity of engagement and belief that was truly moving. As I said at the time I cannot believe that Jackman and Craig – and I say this with some authority as I directed Daniel at Drama School – could have been more convincing in these roles. For a start they carry all the baggage of Hollywood stardom – whereas Ben and Culann just look like they could be Chicago cops.
We stay in America but move to New York for the Wick Theatre Company’s production of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite which opened on Broadway in 1968 and was here directed by Graham Till. This production, set in the same luxury suite of rooms in the Plaza Hotel, is actually three one act plays. We observe three sets of couples negotiate failing marriage, lost and found sweethearts and a society wedding during their separate occupancies of the rooms. The Barn, Southwick is an impressively equipped theatre with a proscenium stage and the company was well served by a meticulously accurate period design produced by David Comber and his team. Martin Oakley’s Lighting design also beautifully evoked the changing New York sky and the costumes were all convincingly of the period. Under Graham Till’s fluid direction, performances were consistently good and when the actors absolutely hit the comic moments it was very funny. It was great to see a range of ages on stage and also the skill demonstrated by Victoria Thompson, who played two very contrasting roles with great conviction and amazing energy. The one depressing thing about this play was the way – in 1968 – people of 59 or 60 were considered to be absolutely past it and really, really old.
We move from 1968 to the contemporary for the New Venture Theatre’s production of Happy Now? by Lucy Coxon, directed by Claire Lewis. This was first staged at the National in 2008 but ten years on the New Venture Theatre’s production felt very much of this moment. With a female protagonist, Kitty, played with blistering sincerity and a kind of tragic undertone by Sophie Dearlove it raises or rather re–raises the question of what do women want. How do they / we manage the delicate balancing act of personal freedom versus responsibility, love, marriage and the strains of family life? The characters are not that likable, there is nothing heroic or particularly endearing about any of them and it is a testament to Claire’s skillful and intelligent direction and the talent of the company that they were not afraid not be liked at certain moments in the play. Quite often you will see actors – when they have to play characters that are not sympathetic to – they will somehow be telegraphing to the audience their moral judgment on that character – I know you don’t like him/her and I don’t either. But no-one did this in this production –and some of the men have a particularly difficult job to do. Simon Hudson, for instance as Michael, who plays a kind of predatory lounge lizard manages to humanize him. Ciaran O’Connor does an excellent job as husband whose best is just not good enough. This was a highly accomplished production with a very skilful company. The action moves around to different locations and Michael Folkard’s design managed to fit multiple settings into a very small space to great effect supported by some deft lightning design by Keith Dawson.
The Southwick Players presented Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green at the Barn theatre in an immaculately detailed box set depicting the interior of a Welsh cottage and the landscape beyond, designed by Martin Oakley and impressively realised by the construction team. Williams wrote this semi-autobiographical play in the 1930’s but the action is set much earlier in a Welsh coal mining village before the First World War. It’s a complex multi-layered play about wasted potential, the value of education, class, the British colonial mindset towards Wales and the newly emergent voice of women in the public sphere. This was all captured in a passionate production directed by Susanne Crosby. I made a note on the night ‘this play reminds us just how bad the good old days really were.’ The cast were mixed in age with the younger members confidently holding their own with the more experienced players – with Becky Dowling particularly good as Idwal Morris. Over all the Welsh accents were very good with a completely authentic-sounding vicar Goronway Jones played by Phil Nair- Brown. This was excellent ensemble work but the catalyst and driver of the play is Miss Moffat – the in-comer from London who wants to set up a school in the village played by Louise Yeo. Her character moves through arrogance, determination, stubbornness and ultimately vulnerability as she is made to confront the gains and losses for the community of her plans. Louise, who has real presence on stage, moved through these different emotional states with astonishing dexterity, energy and conviction. The impressive costumes were evocative of the period as was the sound design by Jeff Woodford; a very affective and affecting piece of work producing strong emotions and food for thought.
Mother Courage and her Children – probably the greatest anti-war play of the last century written by a communist, Bertolt Brecht, and staged in a village hall in Rottingdean. I had no idea what to expect. Well, Rottingdean Drama Society, all I can say is I reckon Brecht would have loved this production. You transformed the hall into a community venue that was both a memorial to the First World War with the walls displaying letters and poems from soldiers, and simultaneously a designed space for the 30 years war – the setting for Mother Courage. This design extended off the stage into the whole auditorium. We were greeted by multiple Mother Courage’s as all the female usher’s, the ladies at the box office and those serving drinks were dressed in period costume and wearing Courage’s signature head scarf. Like-wise the male ushers were dressed as soldiers. The production itself also spilled out into the auditorium, as fact and fiction, reality and illusion became conflated. Having said that, we always knew we were watching a play with songs sung directly to the audience to an original music score by Luke Deane. The play was directed with great vigor by Jo Newman in a true community spirit with cross casting and doubling and with outstanding performances from some of the younger members of the cast. In such a company production like this it is difficult to single people out but I must mention Sidonie Lake as Yvette Pottier and Stephanie Gilbert as the dumb Kattrin – one of the best Kattrin’s I have ever seen. Sam Bullen as the cook brought goose pimples to the back of my neck when he and Courage sang the Song of Solomon, directly to the audience whilst begging for food; an image far too resonant with now to be comfortable. Leading them all – to disaster as it turns out – and pulling her cart to find yet another war so she can keep on trading, was a powerful Mother Courage played – without a shred of sentimentality – by Leslie Arnold. This was a profound production and a memorable evening about the inverted morality of war.
Henfield Theatre Company produced Brighton Beach Memoirs, another Neil Simon play which like The Corn is Green is semi –autobiographical dealing as it does with Simon’s growing up as part of a Jewish émigré family in Brooklyn in the 1930’s. The play was staged in a large all purpose hall configured with audience on three sides and a design by David Hubner that presented, in the simplest terms, the interior and exterior of the Jerome family home with living room, two bedrooms and veranda. This appeared at first to be a rather unpromising environment – to suspend disbelief in a realistic play. But as soon as it began this remarkable company through their belief in and commitment to the characters and their story, supported by Mike Cawte’s sharp directional lighting, transported us to New York and immersed us in their world. The spatial arrangement of the design worked, superbly enhanced by authentic costumes including hair and make-up. I take my hat off to Sheila Nye, the director, because she found a way of enabling the actors to totally inhabit their characters and the space. They lived in it – were at home in it physically and emotionally which absorbed us, as audience, into their world. The accents were all spot on and at one point a family meal is served and eaten around a big dining table – it was so realistic you could almost taste the chopped liver. As a director I know how difficult that is to achieve. This is a harrowing play in many ways – although it also has great humor -as this family of flawed but totally believable characters struggle to hold onto their dignity and their ‘principles’ in the face of financial problems in a deepening economic depression. Can the poor afford to have principles? the play asks. It’s a Brechtian question. Again this was an inter-generational cast with superb acting by the younger actors supported by the emotional weight of the older members of the family. I won’t single anyone out because you were all so good, the entire cast – Ewan, Lauren, Sharona, Marisa, Saskia Raphael, Trevor and director Sheila Nye – thank you.
The last production is an example of a ‘site responsive’ performance, created for the Saints Theatre Group’s production of The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, in St Paul’s Worthing- boldly configured in the round. Director Linsay Oliver and her design team transformed the rather cavernous hall into a station waiting room, in remote Cornwall. Site-responsive design recognizes the pre-existing properties of the space and utilizes them in the production. And it was great to see the clad pillars in the hall and the length of the space used to suggest station and platform. The play is set in 1924 when trains – steam trains – still retained a certain mystique – and one assumes ran on time. There was also strong belief in spiritualism and the supernatural post the First World War and so, although the play on the surface seems to be simply a ghost story, the premise of a ‘ghost train’ would not have been so ridiculous to many in the audience when the play was first performed. This was a lively production with some ‘spirited’ playing and plenty of physicality from a talented cast. The language of the play is of the period and to our ears sounds quite ‘arch’ but the company coped with this really well and seemed to relish the opportunity to play the characters to the hilt without ever falling into pastiche which was Linsay’s worry at the outset. Ian Black and Dan Skelt’s sound effects were superb and combined with Howie Kirk’s lighting produced moments of real suspense and fear. A great evening that kept us warm on a very cold night.
So that’s my summary of the eight productions and once more I congratulate you all. One more point I want to make. I’ve said already how heartening it was to see young actors sharing the stage with more experienced players. For me that is one of the key benefits of your work – it fosters inter-generational community. But it also of course nurtures a love of theatre in the next generation. I know some of the groups already have thriving youth groups and I urge you to make this a priority now as the value of the arts are increasingly diminished in schools – particularly drama. Your theatre groups provide a vital space for the next generation of actors, writers, musicians, designers, directors and makers. A place where they can gain the experience and confidence to hopefully in the future create new work – perhaps with more than two planks – but certainly with a passion.
I now consider myself a champion of amateur drama across the region.
(Jane Collins, Professor of Theatre and Performance at Wimbledon College of Art)