Joyce McMillan: Traverse dominates shortlists for Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland

The big winners at this year’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland look likely to be Orla O’Loughlin and the Traverse Theatre – and in particular the Fringe hit Ulster Amercian
Robert Jack, Darrell DSilva and Lucianne McEvoy in Ulster American at the Traverse. PIC: Sid ScottRobert Jack, Darrell DSilva and Lucianne McEvoy in Ulster American at the Traverse. PIC: Sid Scott
Robert Jack, Darrell DSilva and Lucianne McEvoy in Ulster American at the Traverse. PIC: Sid Scott

When Scotland’s theatre critics gathered at the Festival Theatre last weekend to hammer out the shortlists for this year Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) – ten shortlists of four, over categories ranging from Best Music and Sound to Best Show of The Year – discussion raged as fiercely as ever. There were almost 160 professional shows made in Scotland over the past year on the long list of eligible productions, and the number of actors, writers, directors, designers, music-makers and technical staff involved must have been close to a thousand. Some shows that had attracted positive reviews suddenly failed to arouse that extra surge of enthusiasm needed to propel them onto shortlists, while others that only a few critics had seen proved so memorable and powerful, in discussion, that they shot through the ranks to claim well-deserved recognition.

These shortlists can never be definitive, of course; it’s always been the hope of the CATS critics, since the CATS began in 2003, that their existence would inspire others to set up their own awards for theatre in Scotland, using a range of different judging methods. Nonetheless, by the end of the day, a craggy and debatable outline of the year in Scottish theatre had emerged; and its most striking feature is the huge achievement of the Traverse Theatre, in Orla O’Loughlin’s final year as artistic director, in winning an outstanding ten nominations across six categories.

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There are four nominations for the Traverse’s Edinburgh Fringe 2018 smash-hit Ulster American, recognising the playwright David Ireland, actors Lucianne McEvoy and Darrell D’Silva, and the whole show as one of the best of the year; Cora Bissett’s autobiographical show What Girls Are Made Of – another huge Festival hit, directed by O’Loughlin and co-produced by Raw Material and Regular Music – won three nominations. And the Traverse also won recognition across three categories for O’Loughlin’s superb December production of Mouthpiece, Kieran Hurley’s play about class, theatre, and who gets to tell whose story, which has just finished an acclaimed run at the Soho Theatre in London.

No single Traverse show, though, has won as many nominations as My Left Right Foot, the cheeky and brilliant musical comedy about disability, amateur theatre and politically correct attitudes premiered at Assembly Roxy during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and staged by Birds Of Paradise, Scotland’s main company working with disabled artists, and the National Theatre of Scotland. Just 15 months ago the future of Birds of Paradise was in doubt, after it fell victim to Creative Scotland’s controversial 2018 funding round. Within weeks, though, the funding decision was reversed; and now this latest show – currently on tour to Japan, Brighton, and Dundee – has won six CATS nominations, ranging from Best New Play to Best Ensemble. The Tron Theatre’s autumn production of Enda Welsh’s surreal Irish masterpiece Ballyturk fared almost as well, with Tron artistic director Andy Arnold winning a Best Director nomination, Outlander actor Grant O’Rourke recognised for his performance, and the show also winning recognition for its brilliant design, sound and ensemble work.

There was also widespread recognition for last year’s Imaginate children’s show Baba Yaga, co-created by Scotland’s Shona Reppe with Australian theatre-makers Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers, which was recognised both for its script and design, and as one of the shows of the year, as well as one of the best shows for children and young people; and although it opened only two weeks ago, Perth Theatre’s superb production of Morna Young’s Lost At Sea, which runs at Perth until tonight before going on tour, also won four nominations, for the quality of its ensemble acting, design and music, as well as for Ian Brown’s direction.

Beyond these leading shows, there are of course many that received just one or two nods. Untitled Projects’ fine adaptation of Louis Edouard’s The End of Eddy, about the early life of a young gay man in small-town France, is recognised both for its brilliant technical presentation, and as one of the best shows of the year for young people. There is a nomination for well-known television actor John Michie’s outstanding performance as a senior fire officer in Rob Drummond’s recent Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime drama The Mack, about the two fires that destroyed Glasgow’s School of Art; and a rare lone nomination as Best Production of the Year for the blisteringly brilliant Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of), an all-female 21st century take on Jane Austen’s radical classic co-produced last summer by the Tron Theatre and young Glasgow company Blood Of The Young, and now about to begin a UK tour.

Scottish theatre in 2019 is not without its problems, of course; the number of shows on the CATS eligible list has declined by around 15 per cent over recent years, as increasing numbers of cost-driven co-productions reduce the amount of fully professional work available for Scottish-based actors, designers, musicians, directors and technical staff.

Yet it remains true that if every one of the 17 productions nominated this year had never existed, the critics could reconvene tomorrow and create a new list almost as strong, from the remaining shows. If tough times lie ahead, in other words, then the Scottish theatre culture we gather to celebrate, on 9 June, seems ready to ride out the storm – not perfect, and certainly not without its tensions, but powerful, varied and full of ambition in the themes it tackles; and with a rich pool of talent to draw upon, in every category recognised by the CATS, and far beyond.

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Joyce McMillan is co-convener of the CATS Judging Panel. The CATS award ceremony 2019 will take place at the Tramway, Glasgow, on 9 June; tickets at