What the Critics’ Awards says about Scottish theatre

A Doll's House with Amy Manson. Picture: Richard Campbell
A Doll's House with Amy Manson. Picture: Richard Campbell
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You might imagine the judging of the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (Cats) to be a bit of a stitch-up. If you didn’t know better, you’d say the dozen or so reviewers simply nod through their pet favourites then head off to the pub.

That’s not the case at all (apart from the bit about the pub). Drawing up the shortlist for the ten awards is an exhaustive process that takes a whole day to complete. Everyone’s voice counts and everyone’s voice is different. I write from experience. As one of the judges, I may arrive in the morning convinced one show or another will brook no opposition, only to find a quite different picture emerging as the day’s discussions progress. The final shortlist is as revelatory to us as it is to the rest of the world.

Far from the shortlist being a foregone conclusion, it becomes clear only once the deliberations are over. That’s when we see the full picture and spot patterns emerging. This year, for example, one of us noticed that three of the four nominees for Best Female Performance have been nominated before. It wasn’t intentional; it happened naturally because they are so good.

Maureen Beattie was shortlisted last year for 27 by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and this year for The List by Stellar Quines. Blythe Duff was shortlisted two years ago for Good With People by A Play, a Pie and a Pint and this time for Iron by Firebrand. And Amy Manson was a winner in 2008 for her performance as the stepdaughter in Six Characters in Search of an Author by the Royal Lyceum and is back in contention in 2013 for her role in A Doll’s House by the NTS and the Lyceum. That puts first-timer Eileen Walsh, star of Rob Drummond’s Quiz Show at the Traverse, in formidable company – one of which she is eminently worthy.

Looking at the shortlists, we also get a fuller sense of the strengths and achievements of theatre in Scotland over the past 12 months. It was a fertile year for Edinburgh’s Traverse and Glasgow’s Citizens (six nominations a piece) and, with nominations coming in from Hawick in the Borders to Brae in Shetland, there’s plenty of evidence of top-rate work happening the length of the country. In particular, when it comes to sheer numbers, you can’t ignore the NTS and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Both are sitting on eight nominations.

Look a little closer at the Lyceum’s nominations and you see another story emerging: all but one were co-productions. Takin’ Over the Asylum was staged in tandem with Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre; Time and the Conways was a collaboration with Dundee Rep; and The Guid Sisters was a joint venture with the NTS. What seems significant is all three of those shows have earned themselves nominations for Best Ensemble. In this category, Perth Theatre’s mighty staging of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, itself a co-production with the Lyric Theatre Belfast, will be up against no less than three Lyceum shows.

What this suggests is that the best way for a company to fulfil its large-scale artistic ambitions is by joining forces with another organisation. Audiences love to see a big cast on stage and, in the past 12 months, the Lyceum has satisfied them repeatedly, usually by pooling resources.

In the autumn, it fielded that rare thing, an all-female company of 15 in Michele Tremblay’s The Guid Sisters. This brilliant Quebecois comedy about a woman who wins a million Green Shield stamps would have been too costly to stage without the support of the NTS. There was a similar story earlier this year, when the Lyceum managed to keep two sizeable casts on the road at the same time. In February, 11 actors took to the stage in Glasgow for the first night of Takin’ Over the Asylum, Donna Franceschild’s adaptation of her own 1994 TV tragicomedy set in a mental hospital. Two days later, another ten actors played in front of an Edinburgh audience for the first night of JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways, a time-bending drama about lost opportunity.

Those are just the nominated shows. Elsewhere in the Lyceum season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream employed 13 actors (plus four youth theatre performers), Cinderella 11 and A Doll’s House nine. It makes A Taste of Honey, with its cast of five, look modest, although it too was a strong show with a Cats nomination for Best Music and Sound.

Casts of this size are taken for granted at Dundee Rep, where there is a permanent ensemble of actors. The company’s track record at the Cats (64 nominations in a decade) speaks for itself. Audiences expect work of a similar scale at Pitlochry Festival Theatre which, in recent years, has extended the big-cast ethos of its summer repertory season into the autumn and winter. Irving Berlin’s A White Christmas: The Musical, performed when the Perthshire town was under a blanket of snow, is twice nominated in this year’s Cats.

The existence of the NTS and co-productions in general have made it more possible for other theatres to operate at this kind of level. When you see shows of the standard of those nominated, this is easy to justify. The Lyceum is doing it again in the autumn with Dark Road by Ian Rankin and Mark Thomson, in tandem with the Wales Millennium Centre; and with Chris Hannan’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment, a three-way production with the Citizens and the Liverpool Playhouse. Co-producing is not without its drawbacks, but if it means more good work being seen by more people, there’s a lot in its favour.

Of course, what the CATS shortlist also shows is the diversity of high quality theatre in Scotland. That means as well as the ensemble stuff, there has been dazzling solo work, not least in three of the nominations for Best Male Performance: Alan Cumming in Macbeth, Gerard Murphy in Krapp’s Last Tape and Grant O’Rourke in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Whether one of them or Takin’ Over the Asylum’s Iain Robertson walks away with the award on Sunday matters less than the riches we’ve enjoyed in another cracking year for Scottish theatre.

• The Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland are at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 9 June. www.criticsawards.theatrescotland.com