The S&S Award – St James Theatre

David Ovenden

Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour are presented with The S&S Award by lyricist Don Black. Picture: David Ovenden

The S&S Award was presented at the St James Theatre, London.

The inaugural S&S Award ceremony, created in memory of Sidney and Sylvia Brown, the parents of the lyricist and librettist Warner Brown, was all about discovering and promoting new writers in British musical theatre. The new prize follows in the wake of the Vivian Ellis Award, founded in 1984, and which lyricist Don Black (who presented the award during the evening) had chaired for 15 years, a time, he recalled, of numerous musical versions of David Copperfield. Perhaps time has moved on since then, as it was the innovative scores and challenging storylines of this year’s entries to The S&S Award that really impressed the judges.

The evening at the St James opened and closed with a haunting song, ‘Find the Words’, a thoughtful meditation on what was to follow, sung by Gwyneth Herbert ,who wrote the music with words by Warner Brown. We were treated to excerpts from six musicals which were highly commended or named as runners-up. These were was then followed by an extended extract from the winning show, Forest Boy, by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, who, like their fellow performers, were graduates from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In between, a distinguished line-up of guest speakers pondered the current state of original writing in musical theatre.

All six shows in the first half of the evening were strong on atmosphere with themes that explored subjects well chosen for musical adaptation, including elements of fantasy and the unknown. The spare staging encouraged the audience to focus on content, and the performers sang with uniform conviction to an accompaniment from a three-piece band. Musical styles drew on a parody of the Andrews Sisters featured in Mark Carroll’s The Attic, a story of toys coming alive; a take on a Gilbert and Sullivan number from Counselling Mr Toad (by Andrew Brinded), sung by David Bedella; and a powerful baritone solo with operatic leanings sung by Keith Higham from Between Empires (Morgan Mackintosh, Orlando Simon and Michail Palaiologou). Possessed (by Teresa Howard and Stephen Edis) was a show about the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and Jenifer Toksvig and Alexander Rudd’s The Queen of Snow focused on two girls who imagined they had seen their mother in a snowy landscape, with a pretty title song sung by Kristin Lidstrom and Danielle Hope. Finally, Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse’s The Stationmaster was another dark tale.

Forest Boy, the winning show, took centre-stage for Act II. We heard a truly original voice making itself heard, not beholden to present or past writers, where the music became the means to forward the action in a gripping piece of music drama. Forest Boy is based on a true story about a boy who appeared in Berlin, claiming he had lived in a forest with his father for the past five years, and suffered from amnesia. The story flowed through a score of solo and choral numbers, seamlessly interwoven, with imaginative choreography, inspired by friezes of figures on a Grecian urn, the dancers lending pathos to the story, as they moved in often anguished formation across the stage. The star of the show was Tom Mackley, who made the lead part his very own. Martin McBride as the boy’s father was a strong presence too. The piece was further enhanced by an excellent six-piece band directed from the keyboard by Gavin Whitworth.

The culmination of the evening came when Don Black presented the cast with the award to enthusiastic applause. Sally Ann Triplett, Leigh Zimmerman and Tony Award winner Elizabeth Seal were amongst the West End stars who had come to support this special occasion. It was a triumph for all those concerned and particularly the hard work and dedication of Neil Marcus and Caroline Underwood, without whom, as Black commented: “the evening couldn’t have happened.” The award is facilitated by Mercury Musical Developments (MMD).

Adrian Edwards

Readers may also be interested in Musical Theatre Review’s in-depth coverage of The S&S Award, including an exclusive piece by founder Warner Brown, in Issue 4 – NOW ON SALE!

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