Winners announced for The Stage Debut Awards 2019

The Stage Debut Awards took place last night at The Brewery in London with the public crowning Jac Yarrow as the Joe Allen West End Debut Award for his performance in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The Stage Debut Awards 2019 Jac Yarrow
Jac Yarrow at The Stage Debut Awards 2019. Photo: Alex Brenner

There are a lot of show-business awards to choose from, and they mostly seem to crowd around the start of the year.  So, it was refreshing to come across this one – a relative newcomer itself, having only been with us for the past three seasons – which spans the year from 1st August to 31st July, and which concerns itself with the sometimes difficult process of establishing new talent.  Last night, in the renovated mid-18th-century industrial chambers of Whitbread’s former brew-house at London’s Barbican, the great and the good of UK theatre were there to celebrate new entrants to the industry and to applaud their achievements.

And what an extraordinary variety of work – and pathways – was on offer.  It was almost as if the selecting panel had gone out of its way to represent every aspect of humankind in the immensely varied scope of nominees and presenting artists.  And yet, when you considered the work they are doing, it was impossible to argue that these people do not represent the best in creativity on the stage in this country.

Presenting, Cush Jumbo struck a bracing, relaxed tone.  The first winner, Best Actress in a Play, was Lauren O’Leary from the Republic of Ireland, who opened the evening by telling us the emotional story of how she travelled to Wales to audition for ‘The Awkward Years’ at The Other Room, Cardiff.  She received the award from Giles Terera, who also shared an early story of how he faced negative profiling in a college mock audition, but he didn’t let it stop him: he stuck to what he believed in and carried on with what he wanted to do, and was accepted.  Best Actor in a Play was the sign-language user, Jamal Ajala, for ‘Ear for Eye’ at the Royal Court in London, who received his award from Rosalie Craig.  The Court also saw Best Writer award go to Jasmine Lee-Jones for her brilliant and blistering two-handed set between the real world and Twittersphere, ‘Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner’.

For this, really, was the theme of the evening: to find and acknowledge great new creativity.  After all, just to be on the short-list for such recognition is a considerable achievement in itself.  The UK’s theatres have never been busier than they are today and the quantity of good work that is being done is awe-inspiring.  And often ground-breaking.  Next up, West End and Broadway star, Michael Xavier was clearly thrilled to be presenting Best Composer or Lyricist to the extraordinary writing (and performing) quartet of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts for their remarkably original, fresh and powerfully relevant ‘Operation Mincemeat’, which played briefly at the New Diorama with a score spanning sea shanties to hip-hop.

There were many more surprises along the way.  But perhaps no-one was more surprised to be there than Adam Hugill, victor as Best Actor in a Musical.  Never having thought of himself as a singer, let alone specialist in musical theatre, his role in the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield’s drama about growing up in an economically blighted district of the city, ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’, has catapulted him into the front ranks, just as he packs his bags to go to South Africa and start filming the first run of a multi-series Terry Pratchett TV fantasy drama.  Equally inspiring was recent GSA graduate Danielle Fiamanya who won as Best Actress in a Musical for her role at Nettie in ‘The Color Purple’ at Leicester Curve.

Even fresher onto the scene is Jac Yarrow, who had not even graduated from Arts Educational Schools when he exploded onto the West End as the lead in ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, which earned him the Joe Allen Best West End Debut accolade, presented by the hugely experienced Janie Dee.  In conversation afterwards, both spoke with characteristic generosity and thoughtfulness about the high standards of UK drama schools and the superb quality of actors emerging from them.  (And, by the way, if you missed the short run of the spectacular Palladium ‘Joseph’, there is a rumour that it might be coming back, possibly quite soon.)

But it was impossible to miss the other running theme of the evening: the handing-over of recognition and encouragement from the established industry to those of promise for its future growth and development.  In front of a room filled with the leading production companies and houses of the industry – both commercial and subsidised – all energies were on building careers for tomorrow, and with a sense of inclusion, of diversity that does not always get reflected in every part of today’s world.  At this event, however, we were not just hearing about the need to create a broader-based community: we were seeing it happen.

Thus, National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris was there to put into the hands of Atri Banerjee Best Director prize for his spirited production of the 1916 family drama, ‘Hobson’s Choice’, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.  Even classic theatre has to address the here-and-now, and this was a case in point of how to do it with Tanika Gupta’s arresting transposition of the play into the Lancashire rag-trade of the 1980s.  So, too, was director Lynette Linton and designer Frankie Bradshaw’s ‘Sweat’ at the Donmar Warehouse, which transferred to queues around the block at the Gielgud in the West End, creating a metaphor for contemporary Britain in this tale of the decay of rust-belt America.  For this, they won Best Creative West End Debut, put into their hands by an admiring Mark Gatiss.

Of course, some people move side-ways in their careers, and one such new entrant to the theatre was to be found in the creator of the stunning designs for ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at the National and also for completely contrasting ‘The Hunt’ at the Almeida.  Coming to the stage from the world of fashion, Evie Gurney triumphed in no small measure for her ability to ‘see’, and enable us to see, the power and centrality of one of the most famous middle eastern rulers ever to have lived, given a glamorously tailored and fitted contemporary look for Sophie Okonedo, and also for her gift for anchoring all her characters firmly in the modern world we inhabit.  That award was presented by Jonathan Bailey, while Brenda Edwards congratulated Taya Tower as Child Performer of the Year in the same Almeida production.

I haven’t space to mention the wonderful array of other nominees, who brought still more varied voices and personalities into the proceedings.  There were additional performances by Rachel Tucker, singing ‘The Sky and Me’ from ‘Come From Away’, and also Amara Okereke, who won last year’s Best Actress in a Musical, and tonight gave us ‘Make Someone Happy’ from Jule Styne’s ‘Do Re Mi’.  What a good choice.  All these here described have done just that in a world that really needs it.  As Janie Dee said, ‘No matter what you do, you have to really look hard at the world around you and accept it, and speak to it in a way that makes sense to it’.  That’s what we need theatre for.

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