The ninth Stephen Sondheim Student of the Year Award (also known as SSSPOTY) has brought another year of epic talent to the musical theatre table, with sensational performances from the crème de la crème of England’s drama schools. As well as presenting a new Sondheim champion, the competition awards The Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Prize, upon the insistence of the great man himself that new writing talent be rewarded. The afternoon saw the twelve finalists, who had been whittled down from 72, sing not only a Sondheim song of their choice, but each take a new song, to show off to the deciding panel. The Student Award was judged by a glittering panel, including director Jamie Lloyd, performer Laura Pitt-Pulford, musician John Wilson, and performer Elaine Paige (all of whom are no strangers to Sondheim). Judging The Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize were George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, with the help of musicians and lyricists Jake Brugner and Pippa Cleary.
Hilariously presented by the extraordinary Michael Xavier, the audience were entertained with anecdotes from the sets of Sondheim’s masterpieces, solo performances of some of Xavier’s favourite pieces, as well as a reprisal of ‘Agony’ from Into the Woods with his friend and co-star Simon Thomas, to a rapt audience. Performances from the first lady of musical theatre, Elaine Paige, and last year’s winner Corrine Priest, ensured that this was an afternoon that few could leave without a sense of having witnessed something spectacular.
In many ways, the hardest part in a competition of this nature is opening it, a task Emily Onsloe took on with grace, beginning a fantastic afternoon of talent with ‘Not A Day Goes By’ from Merrily We Roll Along, and exhibiting a voice which was sublime to hear, setting the bar high for her competitors to follow. Every performance was incredible in technical ability, and what was most apparent was not only that there is an enormous wealth of talent ready to explode onto the stage in the next few years, but the diversity of abilities and styles behind each of these young actors. Ewan Black, from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, particularly shone with his rendition of ‘Being Alive’ from Company, and whilst he was not the lucky winner or runner up, I have no doubt that we will see great things come from him in the next few years. Not only was his voice exceptional, but his ability to conjure a character within the few minutes of his performance was flawless. His delivery of ‘Haus Potsdam’ by Alex Young and Kate Marlais, for the Stiles and Drewe prize, was humorous and exciting, and really brought the piece alive.
Another remarkable performance came from Amy Bridges, who is currently studying at Musical Theatre Academy. The raw tone and energy with which she sang ‘More’ from Dick Tracy was breathtaking, and she oozed confidence and charisma throughout both of her performances. Her latter song, ‘Look at Me’ by Eamonn O’Dwyer, gave her an even greater chance to shine as her powerful rendition of a hard but fragile young girl was one of the highlights of the event. The song itself received a special mention as the awards were allocated.
Runner up to the competition was Leah West, a final year student at the Art Educational School London. Singing ‘I Read’ from Passion. Her voice was one of purity and charm and her second performance of ‘Love Me’ by Laura Kay Thomson gained a special mention by the judges. The winner of The Stiles and Drewe Award ‘Don’t Look Down’ by Richy Hughes and Joseph Finlay was a beautiful piece about the members of Fathers 4 Justice who dressed as Superheroes in 2008 and scaled the buildings of London. A comic, warm, and uplifting song, it fully deserved to win the competition. The song was performed by Grant McConvey from the Guilford School Acting, who received a prize for singing the winning song, and who was told that he was a close contender for the runner up position of the Sondheim Student Award.
Whilst every performer was without exception, exceptional, it was with no surprise that Bristol Old Vic student, Erin Doherty, took her place as winner of The Stephen Sondheim Student of the Year Award for 2015. The atmosphere in the audience was electric as her name was called whilst her expression was a mixture of delight and shock. Her ‘Broadway Baby’ from Follies was remarkable, demonstrating a sensational voice, incredible acting skill and comic timing. When presenting the award, Julia McKenzie commented that ‘comedy is a rare talent’, one of the many things that Erin Doherty has in abundance. Her rendition of ‘The Angel at the Top of the Tree’ by Darren Clarke was runner up in the Stiles and Drewe Prize, a warm and fantastically entertaining song and performance. As well as the honour of winning this competition, Doherty will be performing at the 85th Anniversary of Stephen Sondheim Concert later in the year.
As the awards were presented, with the finalists and judges all onstage together, it struck me what a privilege it was to be in a room with all of these remarkable people at one time. A thrilling afternoon of the finest young singers and new writers around, all that is left now is to patiently wait for them to explode onto London’s stages with their talents.
Review by Breeze Barrington
Monday 18th May 2015