Manchester Theatre Awards 2014: Tricky pickings

Polly Checkland Harding
Manchester International Festival, The Old Woman, Mikhail Baryshnikov

We take a look at the nominees for Manchester Theatre Awards 2014.

The judges of Manchester Theatre Awards are faced with something of a conundrum. Evaluating the respective merits of nearly 100 nominations in 20 different categories can hardly be an easy task. But they must also be stuck between a bit of a theatrical rock and a hard place: to whom do you give credit to when actors whose catalogue of accolades is (deservedly) as long as a props list are up against talent not yet nationally recognised? A similar argument can be made for the productions nominated: where War Horse is currently touring the length and breadth of Blighty, Max Webster’s tender version of To Kill a Mockingbird will go no further than the Royal Exchange. The theatre, which is the venue for this year’s awards ceremony on Friday 7 March (taking over from Manchester Opera House), has secured nods for ten different productions – it remains to be seen whether it will be picked over the Manchester International Festival heavyweights.

The judges of Manchester Theatre Awards are faced with something of a conundrum

Although it is only to Manchester’s credit that it has played host to stand out performances from the likes of Maxine Peake (Masque of Anarchy) and Kenneth Branagh (Macbeth) – both nominees for the Best Actress/Actor categories – when it comes to awards, you start to wonder if Branagh in particular has any shelf space left. By contrast, emerging performers such as Shannon Tarbet, who gave a guileless and energetic turn as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, are likely to draw a blank if you float their names over a pint – so what better way to raise their profile than handing over a gong for the sideboard? With the theatre scene a harsher environment than ever as a profession, there’s something to be said for fostering those lesser known. Which is where MTA’s Best Newcomer class, along with the sheer extensiveness of its nominations, comes in. Termed a “shortlist”on the awards website, several of the 20 categories run to six different picks in an effort to properly acknowledge the wealth of talent in Manchester’s theatre scene.

It’s encouraging that there appears to have been no restriction as to the number of times a production is nominated – two of the performers in That Day We Sang have been selected for Best Supporting Actress, for example. It seems that if there’s an aspect worth celebrating, it makes the MTA grade. This can mean that categories are dominated by just a few companies: the six nominations for Best Production are shared between Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, the Royal Exchange and MIF. Interestingly, this category has a particularly literary bent; all but one of the productions are adaptations from prose, though its likely that few will be familiar with the short story that inspired The Old Woman. New writing is also championed, with separate awards for Best New Play and Best Fringe Production/Performance – the recognition of fringe theatre feels particularly important in the light of the closing of host venues (the sad demise of Lass O’Gowrie, for instance).

Which all goes to show just how important the annual Manchester Theatre Awards actually are. It seems more than a little astonishing, then, that only three years ago its future was seriously in question: MTA was rescued and turned into an independent concern when the Manchester Evening News, which established the ceremony back in 1981, decided to scrap it. And on the reborn MTA’s third birthday, for the first time ever, the public are being offered the opportunity to attend the ceremony, hosted by comedian Justin Moorhouse – it’s a chance to see for yourself who the judges’ favour finally falls on.

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