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The Manchester Theatre Awards: Fringe Benefits or Crowdpleasers?

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You have to sympathise with the judging panel for the Manchester Theatre Awards. After all, the North West had a paucity of decent productions in the first half of 2012 so that drawing up a short list can’t have been easy. Impressively they managed to produce a list of nominations so extensive as to be daunting. Casual theatregoers might feel intimidated about expressing an opinion, as one person is unlikely to have seen all of the shows nominated.

As with any awards list there are peculiarities.  There is no ‘Best Director’ category so perhaps such an award would go to the person responsible for the ‘Best Production’. One assumes that the category of ‘Best New Play’ is an award for the writer of the play but it is hard to be sure. What the heck does ‘Best Special Entertainment’ mean? It seems like a category to cover the odds and sods that don’t fit anywhere else as the nominees have little in common – open-air, promenade, adaptation of a radio show and a panto.

Not having seen all of the shows nominated I’m not in position to argue whether the Panel have made mistakes in their choices. But the range of categories is puzzling. Time was I assumed that if a show wasn’t mainstream then it was fringe. Now ‘Studio Production’ has been slotted between the two. The difference is subtle and could be just a question of whether a show takes place in a ‘proper’ theatre or a pub or office block.

The efforts of the Panel to recognise smaller shows that otherwise might be overlooked in the rush to honour blockbusters is commendable. After all fringe shows are much more likely to need the publicity generated by the awards than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But it is a bit condescending; rather than nominate the powerful Black Roses as best production and Julie Hesmondhalgh as best actress they are ghettoised as a ‘Studio Production’. The categorisation seems to emphasise the type of production over its quality. Besides, where do you stop when extending the number of categories – ‘Best Pub Production’, ‘Best Promenade Production’? Personally, I’d argue the need for a category of’ Best Looking Internet Reviewer’.

If nothing else the Manchester Theatre Awards looks likely to provoke debate on the subject and that can never be a bad thing.

Have a look at the nominations here and have your say. The winners will be announced on 26th March.

- Dave Cunningham


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