The S&S Award Gala was held at the St James Theatre, London.
There will be 26 musical shows running in London this Christmas, that’s more than half the occupancy of the total number of theatres in the West End. Of those 26, 17 are largely original work, the remainder drawing on the back catalogue of songwriters from Irving Berlin to The Kinks. Although the imbalance isn’t as wide as perception might have it, there are still compelling reasons to encourage today’s up-and-coming writers by offering them a platform like The S&S Award, this Gala night seamlessly directed by Simon Greiff with David Bedella as the professional host.
This year there were three shows shortlisted, as against six entries last year; an outright award winner, Stay Awake, Jake, by Tim Gilvin (presented with his award by actor and director Nigel Harman), and two highly commended titles. Playing on the apron stage of the St James Theatre, the evening began with Jabberwocky by Rebecca Applin and Susannah Pearse. This interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, viewed though a modern lens, would benefit from a sharper delineation between the modern world and the Victorian era. However, the cast of six, playing against the odds of an original cast of 35 in a workshop production, did well to give us the opening third of the show.
The other highly commended piece, Van Winkle – A Folk Musical also moved back and forth in time. This was achieved with grace and purpose as all eight cast members took to the stage in character, as well as playing a motley collection of musical intruments. The selected scenes served the story well as it followed Van Winkle and his dog Wolf up the Catskill Mountains in Vermont, where he fell asleep on illicit liquor. Awakened, he found an independent America.
Matt Wycliffe, playing harmonica, led the engaging cast who sang their hillbilly style numbers with gusto. Caroline Wigmore’s music was tuneful and well written for the voice, (it’s always a good sign when the tunes are being whistled after curtain fall), and the arrangements and orchestrations by Jen Green were resourceful and idiomatic. Van Winkle is a beguiling show with an appeal to all generations.
The award winner, Stay Awake, Jake, presented the most challenging show of the evening, a musical monologue about a man (played by Norman Bowman) on a motorway driving from London to Carlisle for a reunion with his estranged girlfriend. A few minutes in, thoughts of Schubert’s ‘Winter Journey’ came to mind as Jake’s soul searching was expressed in through-sung form. Was this man heading for oblivion too?
In this extended excerpt, (the original show runs to an hour), Jake did not always come across as a sympathetic character, and I would have liked more suggestion in the music that he was a man behind the wheel on a night-time drive. However, it is elements such as these that the writer will be able to refine in the week’s developmental retreat which is offered as part of The S&S Award. The accompaniment of keyboard and cello was provided by Richard Bates and Maria Rodriguez Reina.
Gwyneth Herbert sang ‘Find The Words’ (music by Herbert, lyrics by Warner Brown) at the beginning of the evening and the song was reprised by London School of Musical Theatre graduates at the close.
Warner Brown and Caroline Underwood have dedicated themselves to this admirable cause which is given in the memory of Brown’s parents, Sidney and Sylvia Brown, affectionately known as ‘S&S’. A future collaboration with the Curve Leicester should ensure this support for new writers of musical theatre continues to flourish.