The annual Off West End Awards took place earlier this evening and for the first time acknowledged the contribution made by online theatre productions. The ceremony took place on the Scenesaver platform and if you missed it you can see the whole thing on their website – click here. Thirteen productions won through, although the fifty or so finalists are all acknowledged as making a major contribution to keeping the spirit of theatre alive during the pandemic. Here’s the winners – congratulations to all:
Recording pre-lockdown (direct)
The House Of Bernarda Alba
The deaf/disabled led company Graeae in collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester excelled itself in this production of the Lorca classic which works both as a domestic drama and as a comment upon the rise of Spanish fascism. Kathryn Hunter (her usual incredible self) took the lead role as a matriarch who instils fear and loathing into her daughters. My full review is here.
Recording pre-lockdown (edited)
Although it was extended a little, Complicité’s “experience” was only initially online for a week; alas, it has yet to resurface. If it does then do seize the opportunity with both ears (!) Filmed at the Barbican in 2015 it is an almost impossible piece to describe as it works on so many levels and takes you into different worlds through an unprecedented use of sound – wearing headphones was pretty much an essential. And the visuals weren’t half bad either. Simon McBurney is writer, director, narrator, actor and at times his own sound technician. A term like tour de force can get bandied around lightly but this truly is one time its use is fully justified. My full review is here.
Recording post-lockdown (direct)
This play by Neil Bebber was first performed in 2019 and reimagined for online performance with the same actor and director. It is a monologue piece which, for fairly obvious reasons, became the go to genre for many playmakers in lockdown. It deals with the subjects of homelessness and abuse although not in the expected style. Jordan Bernarde is eminently watchable and although it is a solo performance he has a couple of interesting co-stars which are put to good use to flesh out the story – you’ll need to watch it to get that reference and you can do that on Scenesaver – click here). As the author observed in an interview, online theatre came with at least one advantage; the play was watched by 500 people in only four days – highly unlikely in “real” life. My full review is here.
Recording post-lockdown (edited)
I learned in an interview with author Martin Sherman that the part of Rose was originally conceived for Maureen Lipman many moons ago. One plus of the lockdown, then, was that we finally got to see her magnificent portrayal of the octogenarian survivor. Through her personal testimony we learn about the character’s own life and some of the big world events such as the Holocaust which informed the Jewish experience in the last century. This co-production from Ginger Quiff Media and the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester initially only streamed for a few days but was such a success that they kept bringing it back; it recently resurfaced on Sky Arts TV. Maureen Lipman was created a dame last year; here’s why. My full review is here.
Live streamed (originally – may be presented later as a recording)
This new monologue play by Philip Ridley was one of the theatrical sensations of 2020 with a thrilling script and what was the breakout performance of the year from Joseph Potter; his is a name to watch. Production company Tramp followed their online success with Ridley’s 15 piece monologue cycle The Beast Will Rise with this stunning piece of work which premiered at Southwark Playhouse. It should have taken place in front of a live audience, but the opportunity was removed by the latest twist in the Covid story. Instead, a mere handful of livestreamed performances occurred. It’s currently back with a vengeance for encore streaming until the end of this month – click here. My full review is here.
Rockets and Blue Lights
The Lockdown Theatre Festival headed by actor Bertie Carvel aired four plays via the BBC, each of which had actually appeared briefly on stage just as the pandemic was ramping up. The Royal Exchange, Manchester’s production of Winsome Pinnock’s play had played a couple of preview performances and transferred remarkably well to an audio format. Being a play about the slave trade and colonial attitudes it was right of the moment as the other big news event of 2020, the killing of George Floyd and the #BlackLives Matter protests also began to dominate the headlines. The recording is not currently available but presumably the Royal Exchange will be reviving their production as soon as they are able. My full review is here.
Platform based (presented using a platform such as Zoom)
Alice, A Virtual Theme Park
Creation Theatre was responsible for pushing the envelope of what could be done with platform based shows creating several high-tech theatre pieces last year. Working in this particular instance with partners Big Telly Theatre and charisma.ai, this was the pick of the bunch. Loosely based on the famous Lewis Carroll children’s story there were a number of optional choices to be made visiting fairground sideshows to interact with some of the famous characters before coming together for the grand finale of the trial scene. Consistently ingenious and setting the bar high for platform based theatre this was an ideal family choice last summer. The show is no longer available, though Creation continues to live up to its name in producing new shows – click here. My full review is here.
15 Heroines: The Desert /The Labyrinth /The War
Jermyn St Theatre commissioned 15 short monologues from 15 women writers taking their inspiration from Ovid’s Heroides which would originally have been performed by men; this time round women were given back their own voices. The pieces feature characters from legend such as Medea, Penelope, Ariadne and Dido. A complex range of emotions is on display across the 3 programmes which played to extremely good reviews in the autumn interim period at the theatre before moving online. The plays are available on Digital Theatre+ (aimed at educational establishments) – click here. I did not review these shows, though I have been fortunate enough to see them since
CtrlAltRepeat whisked its audience back to the 1980s and the era of the American cop show/film. It’s a clever and addictive confection where you get to work with fellow rookie squad recruits to solve crime, tackle the baddie and beat the inevitable ticking bomb. Split into three teams which support each other there are characters to work with, documents to examine and life and death decisions to be made which takes this beyond the realms of the more ordinary game playing theatrical experience. The finalist nomination is for the original iteration of the show but Viper Squad Remastered, a new and improved version, has recently been launched – click here. My full review of the original show is here and of the revamped version is here.
What A Carve Up!
It took no less than three theatres working together in tandem to put this very well received piece together: Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and The Barn Theatre, Cirencester. And they can be very proud of the results which introduced a new form of theatrical/audio/video hybrid in what virtually amounted to a brand new performance form, high on invention and quality. The play is Henry Filloux- Bennett’s revisit of Jonathan Coe’s acid satire on the greed is good ethos of the 1980s with the original protagonist’s son now trying to clear his father’s name and encountering an all-star cast along the way. The show is currently not available (bring it back, please) and my full review is here.
Shows for Young People 12+
I, Cinna (The Poet)
Early last year Tim Crouch performed this piece live at the Unicorn Theatre and then revived it in an online form during the summer. It is part of an occasional series by him exploring less prominent characters from the Shakespeare plays, in this case Julius Caesar. Part character examination, part revision notes, part poetry writing masterclass, part meditation on democracy and politics, Crouch’s script and delivery pull together the disparate parts to make a unified and fascinating whole. This really took online theatre for young people seriously. The show was only ever live and unrecorded; however, a version produced by the RSC (but, alas, without Crouch) is still available – click here. My full review is here.
Shows for Children
This production of Roald Dahl’s story is given the appropriately full anarchic treatment by the Unicorn Theatre. Billed as a reading, it is obviously so much more than that as the two storytellers put over the narrative with energy and conviction bringing the various characters to life with their vocal skills. There is all manner of visual and aural delights to keep things thoroughly entertaining. This three part show is available to watch for the rest of this month – click here. My review is here.
The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington
Sleeping Trees have a tradition of putting on an annual “mash up” panto; this production took things one stage further by having it happen at home – theirs and yours. The cast of three play all the main characters, supporting roles and crowd extras and even each other’s stunt doubles consistently employing ingenious solutions of a make do and mend variety to fire the imagination. The audience were encouraged to collect together household items to use as props; they get to join in scenes such as constructing a ship out of the living room sofa. The show is no longer available, and my review is here.
In addition, special OneOff Awards were given out to Sam Cassidy’s dance theatre piece Wait For Me, The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh for the creation of an online auditorium Traverse 3, to Blue Moon Zoom for their Dream Catcher project aimed at SEN children and to Scenesaver, the online platform for performances from Offwestend and fringe theatres from all around the world. They join a select list receiving the award during the last year including The Show Must Go Online and The Northern Comedy Theatre (for further details click here)
Some extremely worthy winners there which show that the theatre industry is alive and kicking, albeit in a rather different form. And if you’re stuck for what to see, hope that gives you some ideas! There’s plenty more where that came form – subscribe to my blog and follow on Twitter to keep up to date with all that’s good to watch.
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