Features Published 24 December 2019

Exeunt’s Alternative Theatre Awards of 2019

Iron your cummerbunds, the starriest, glitziest event of the theatre calendar is here: it’s Exeunt’s annual (alternative) awards.

Exeunt Staff
Sam Neale in Bobby Robson Saved My Life at Customs House, South Shields. Design, Gareth Hunter and Jamie Brown; lighting design, John Rainsforth. Photo: Chris J. Allan.

Sam Neale in Bobby Robson Saved My Life at Customs House, South Shields. Design, Gareth Hunter and Jamie Brown; lighting design, John Rainsforth. Photo: Chris J. Allan.


The “I thought it was just me” Communal Catharsis Award
Since 2019 has been, to say the least, a total shitshow, theatre has often felt to me more urgent and necessary than ever, and never more so than when it provides a room full of people with a shock of recognition and validation. I found that in expected and unexpected places this year: while advance press meant I anticipated the rousing call to arms that was the Emilia closing speech, I was more surprised to find it in The Customs House tribute to a beloved local hero in Bobby Robson Saved My Life, which saw me and an audience of Geordies crying over a good man gone, or in the audible groans of recognition and sheer absolute bloody relief that greeted Alphabetti’s Down to Zero (and its smartly calibrated response pieces), which tackled the still-too-often unspoken side effects of menopause. (Tracey Sinclair)

Most Beloved Disappearing Fringe Venue
I’ve been enjoying Ovalhouse’s ‘Demolition Season’, which has given artists free rein to use the fabric of the building as a co-collaborator in their shows, before the theatre moves premises to Brixton in 2020. However, the true winner of this award is The Bunker, which announced this autumn that it would be closing as its site has been earmarked for development. From its vibrant programme of emerging artists, to its writers’ snug, to its gender neutral bathrooms with free sanitary products, the Bunker has been leading the way in showing how much a fringe theatre with few resources can do to change the theatre landscape for the better. It will be much missed. (Hannah Greenstreet)

The Tight Northern Bastard “HOW BLOODY MUCH?” Award
One of the main things of moving out of London and the South is that it has made me realise how ridiculously, unsustainably expensive most London theatre is. Not just the plays themselves – though ticket prices seem to be getting ever pricier – but all the add-ons that a trip to the theatre involves. Having paid through the nose for a ticket to Betrayal, it felt like an added insult to be charged so much for a glass of wine that Tom Hiddleston should have delivered it personally to my seat. I recently saw a show in York and worked out that the all-in price (ticket, return train from Newcastle and 2 large glasses of wine) cost less than the ticket-only price of seeing the same show at its London premiere. I know venues have overheads and times are tough, but going to the theatre shouldn’t be a joyless experience where, if you manage to scrape together the cost of a ticket, you can’t afford a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in the bar. (Tracey Sinclair)

The Colin Firth Award for a Right Old Regency Romp
Blood of the Young’s touring production of Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) was my night out of the year – seriously, it’s enormous fun – but it’s also one in the eye for heteronormativity, refusing to play its central romance (just) for laughs. In this version of the classic retold by the all-female servants, Isobel McArthur is a properly smouldering Darcy and has palpable sexual chemistry with Meghan Tyler’s sweary, swaggering Lizzie. (Tracey Sinclair)

Most Personalised Tearjerker Moment
When I saw Birth at the York Theatre Royal in July I was almost angry at how effectively the casting had me welling up. There’s a sequence where the four performers careen around the stage between billowing sheets, conjuring up key moments from the life of a family. We see first kisses, fast forward to first steps, long lingering hugs. I feel like it would’ve been heartbreaking enough to have this speedy reminder of our fragility and temporary nature in the world, if the romantic interest turned dad weren’t incredibly tall with glasses like my husband. Ow ow ow! Are those my feelings? Yes, yes they are, and they’re all broken and on the floor. (Louise Dunn)

The Sly Dig at Posh Boys in Pop Award
There were many, many reasons to love Cora Bissett’s smart, sharply observed What Girls Are Made Of – touring after an acclaimed run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – but a couple of throwaway digs at posh indie popstars is definitely one of them. (Tracey Sinclair)

Gina Moxley in ‘The Patient Gloria’ at Traverse Theatre – the pictured phallus isn’t an award winner but it’s as close as we could get. Photo: Lara Cappelli

Most Creative Use of Sex Toy
While you might be expecting Cate Blanchett penetrating Stephen Dillane with a strap on in When we have sufficiently tortured each other to rise triumphant, I thought it was a bit of an anticlimax. Instead, the award goes to the flying drone dildo in Patient Gloria at the Traverse. Alice Saville’s review contextualises why it is a very fitting prop for a show about the patriarchal origins of early psychotherapy. After googling ‘flying penis’, I’ve now also discovered that the Romans used flying penis amulets to ward off evil. (Hannah Greenstreet)

Cutest Animal
Without wishing to reopen the Exeunt awards controversy of 2017, I award this year’s title of cutest animal onstage to Nala the dog. Her entry at the end of Sh!t Theatre’s hard-hitting Drink Rum with Expats provides some much needed light relief. She demonstrates admirable socio-political awareness (for a dog). And she looks adorable in a sailor costume. (Hannah Greenstreet)

Best Stash
I like to tell myself that I am no longer the child who decided cereal brand allegiance by the quality of the giveaways. Theatre can’t buy my loyalty with free tat! But then Hannah Maxwell’s I, Am Dram gave me a badge that said ‘I am the very model of a modern urban lesbian’ and I swooned. New Diorama’s stash is less directly personalised but still more gorgeous: it hands out square enamel badges that you can use to turn your winter coat into a shiny tribute to your devised theatre faves. Dinomania 4 eva. (Alice Saville)

The Surprise Retro Slap Bass Award
I got an unexpected Proustian rush when watching Scottish Dance Theatre performing The Circle, their frenetic, semi- improvised marvel, at Tramway this year. At one point, there was a bass solo that so emulated the music from snarky sitcom Seinfeld that I half-expected Kramer to slide in and deliver an eccentric monologue, before concocting an ill-conceived ‘get rich quick’ scheme. Which is not exactly what SDT and choreographer Emanuel Gat had in mind, I’m sure. (Lorna Irvine)

Best Earworm
I wish it was some catchy showtune but actually it’s the sound of celery cracking in the Donmar’s Berberian Sound Studio. (Kate Wyver)

Most Horrifyingly Misconceived Social Media Strategy
Whoever was behind the online presence of immersive show Wolf of Wall Street unleashed a twilight bark’s worth of social media howlers. When reviewer pointed out that yes, recreating a toxic and macho workplace resulted in toxic and macho behaviour, the wolf yowled back with ‘haters gonna hate’ type memes. And then, when this masterstroke didn’t shift tickets, the production announced it was being ‘shut down by the FBI’, who are of course famous for their passionate interest in struggling interactive theatre shows. No blue tick for you, wolf. (Alice Saville)

Trend I Would Most Like to Leave in 2019
There are so many semi-serious things I could put here, including any play that comes with an incredibly dull tag-line about ‘free speech’. My mates toddler doing a poo in the middle of the transport museum because they wanted to go for chips NOW – that was free speech, and whilst still better entertainment than Bitter Wheat, it still shouldn’t warrant any serious interest from producers. However the award goes to theatre-company-Instagrams, for two reasons. Firstly, Instagram is the last corner of the internet where we should be free to look at sparkly hats and not have to talk about work. Secondly, it’s prime territory for the next generation of up-its-arse blue-shirt rehearsal photography. I don’t need to see pics of you lying pensively on an empty stage at the Pleasance, the tortured artist effect all rather spoiled by the hilarious fact that you got someone to take this photo. (Francesca Peschier)

Best Shows That Still Proved Less Enticing Than a Nap
Visibly affluent, mainly older and predominantly white people dozing off in seats I’d never be able to afford, during shows which have me hooked – I salute you. I wish I had your level of comfort, whether it’s at The Antipodes at the National, [BLANK] at the Donmar, or Dear Evan Hansen (to the sound of all that teenage anxiety!). There’s an honesty in your reaction, despite that these shows really rewarded watching – it’s a warm, dark room and we’re all tired! I get it. (Frey Kwa Hawking)

The ‘Oh, it’s over, we can clap now’ Award
There were quite a few shows I saw this year that had endings that faded to black… followed by slow, agonising seconds of awkward silence. Annie Baker’s The Antipodes took the audience probably about 15 seconds to come out of our daze to twig that it was really the end, and that it was socially acceptable to clap now. Spassky vs. Fischer at the Hampstead also ended on a weird beat, a blackout, followed by heavy. silence. The actors were halfway towards bowing before the audience felt safe to applaud. But I think the stunned silence, single clapping audience member and scattered applause at Appropriate takes the cake this year for most awkward ending. Awkward audiences, this one is for you. (Amy Borsuk)

The THANK YOU award, for giving hope
For making you feel energised and fizzy coming out of them: the unbridled oddness and anger of the Lyric Ensemble’s The Mob Reformers, for the way these young people see the world around them with such accuracy and humour. Shook by Samuel Bailey at the Southwark Playhouse, for the sad despite all its sweets. And Orange Tree Theatre’s production of Little Baby Jesus by Arinzé Kene, which plants ?? !! ?? !!! in your brain where you didn’t know they could be planted. (Frey Kwa Hawking)

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine