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More awards & May poles

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Even before the Olivier Awards are handed out this weekend, we hear of yet another set of back-patting bravos from the estimable Mousetrap Theatre Projects, a theatre education charity that spreads the West End word among schoolchildren and young adults.

"The Mousetraps" will be announced in a ceremony in the Old Vic Tunnels next weekend — presumably the dank vaults will be littered with cheesey nibbles to attract the guest rodents — but one of the prizes is already declared.

And the winner in the "most attractive cast" category is... Shrek the Musical. No it isn't, silly, it's Chicago. But in a contradictory press release, the category doesn't even exist: instead, there is a "sexiest cast" label, so presumably that's now been withdrawn on, well, sexist, grounds, though I don't see much difference with the new naming.

Anyway, point is, the awards have all been voted for by young people aged between 15 and 23, and aside from the usual categories of Best Musical, Best Play, Best Ensemble, we have "show I would most recommend to a friend" and "show that shouldn't have closed."

There's no individual actor category, alas, and perhaps a little spice might have been added with a prize for "show I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy" or even "show that really shouldn't still be allowed to carry on," though that might have brought a certain thriller called The Mousetrap into contention on both counts.

Mousetrap Theatre Projects is indeed a beneficiary of that long-running show and has used its good fortune to the advantage of countless young theatregoers, and their horizons are not necessarily limited by what is available on the West End list.

Chicago has long been a favourite, and hundreds of thousands of Mousetrap theatregoers have been pressed into The Woman in Black, but they also pay regular visits to the National, the Young Vic and the Royal Court. The Young Vic's A Doll's House will be on the schools' programme this summer term.

Susan Whiddington and her small commando force deserve everyone's support, and I hope the awards go with a real swing. We critics have often taken part in her critical seminar courses with the youngsters and such enjoyable experiences are always of two-way benefit: educational for the kids and refreshing for the critics.

One critic who felt a chill this week was my friend and colleague Joyce MacMillan of The Scotsman, whose no-nonsense disapproval of Spymonkey led her into a walk-on part (in reference only) in the group's new show, Oedipussy, at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

Actually, the Joyce-baiting was very good-humoured, and one of the cast was even moved, ironically, to agree with most of what she said; that they really should grow up, stop messing around, and take Greek myths and everything else a bit more seriously.

By the end of the slightly too-long show, there was a growing feeling in the audience that perhaps Joyce really had made one or two valid points about Spymonkey; which only reinforces the wittiness of including her strictures at the top of the evening.

I was saddened to learn of the passing on Good Friday of Val May, a distinguished West End figure who ran the Bristol Old Vic through the 1960s and beyond until settling at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, in succession to Laurier Lister, the theatre's founding director, in 1975.

May's Bristol Old Vic was the most prestigious rep in the country, a position it is surely now reclaiming under Tom Morris, but in a very different sort of way. May, who trained with Michel Saint-Denis at the Old Vic School in London, was an actors' director and traditionalist par excellence, and not many of our leading players failed to pass through his hands.

In one outstanding season in 1973, Peter O'Toole, who loved the Georgian theatre and had worked there early in his career, returned to appear in three plays: Uncle Vanya, Plunder by Ben Travers and Shaw's The Apple Cart.

The BOV travelled in Europe and supplied the West End with countless transfers without ever losing its regional cachet, status and identity. May supervised the building of the new frontage, and the creation of the studio theatre to which he was devoted.

At Guildford, his policy was much more of a forthright launchpad for commercial presentations in London, though I've often wondered how much the dedicated suburban Surrey audience is a reliable barometer of West End taste, beyond a fast fading loyalty to Penelope Keith and Richard Briers.

Still, Guildford still flourishes under Jamie Barber, while Jonathan Church at Chichester has probably assumed Val May's mantle of judging exactly the best balance between contemportary writing and acting talent and their commercial application.

Not even Val May could have foreseen a West End pairing, for instance, of Terence Rattigan and David Hare, in the Chichester transfer next week to the Harold Comedy Theatre of The Browning Version and Hare's South Downs.


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