The Stephen Sondheim Society: Student Performer of the Year 2019 – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Writer: Maryam Philpott

While the eyes of British theatre turn towards tonight’s Tony awards in New York where several transfers from the West End hold hopeful nominations, back in London The Stephen Sondheim Society celebrate the future of the industry. LAMDA’s Stuart Thompson won the prestigious Student Performer of the Year award while ‘Words/Amazing’ by Theo Jamieson snaffled the Stiles + Drewe Prize for Best New Song.

In an afternoon of performance and celebration at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, host Joanna Riding who recently took over the role of Sally Durrant in the National Theatre’s Follies revival was joined by a number of celebrated figures from musical theatre who formed the two judging panels. Assessing the Stiles + Drewe composition prize were Phantom of the Operalyricist Charles Hart, star of TinaNkeki Obi-Melekwe, writer Anthony Drewe and actor Jenna Russell.

The twelve finalists in this category each submitted one song and synopsis for a larger piece of work hoping to win the £1000 top prize. With ideas ranging from Miss Havisham’s wedding day, a solo for an angry abandoned penguin as part of a larger animal-based musical set in a zoo, and the bright young things of the 1920s it was a diverse and intriguing collection of work. Notable among the entries was ‘Dead in the Water’ from Operation Mincemeat which opened to much acclaim at the New Diorama Theatre last month, and official runners-up Ben Glasstone and Poppy Burton-Morgan who presented the charming ‘My Thing’ from their synchronized-swimming musical.

Now in its thirteenth year, the Student Performer of the Year prize attracted candidates from across the performing arts institutions including RADA, Brunel, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, The Guildford School of Acting and Bird College, whittled down to just twelve each singing their favourite Sondheim song. Performing in groups of three, it’s clear that recent film and stage revivals have influenced choices with several from Into the Woods and Follies in particular, although Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George and Saturday Nightall featured in this three-hour celebration of Sondheim’s work.

The Judging Panel for the student award consisted of broadcaster Edward Seckerson, composer George Valentine and actor Peter Polycarpou along with Sondheim Society patron Julia McKenzie. In a closely fought contest, an additional runner-up prize was added when the panel were unable to choose between RADA’s Jamie Bogyo whose fantastic rendition of ‘The Ballad of Booth’ from Assassins was full of skilful character creation, and eventual official runner-up Paige Fenton of Bird College whose villainous take on ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods was an unusual but fitting end to the performance aspect of the event.

Overall winner Stuart Thompson performed ‘Franklin Shepard Inc’ from Merrily We Roll Along, a vibrant number full of manic characteristics and a classic Sondheim sense of abandonment that Thompson elicited extremely well. The LAMDA student is currently in his final year and this prestigious prize will help to launch a new musical theatre career as it has for 2018 winner Alex Cardell who performed his brilliant winning performance from last year – ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from Follies– and was joined onstage by Tori Allen Martin to preview ‘American Express’ from the new musical The Seasons which has a potential theatre slot in the months ahead.

Host Joanna Riding gave a powerful rendition of Losing My Mind from her recent stint in Follies while Andy Coxon and Gabriela Garcia performed a stunning excerpt from the Royal Exchange Manchester’s critically acclaimed West Side Story which returns to the venue in 2020. In an afternoon bursting with talented musicians, the Stephen Sondheim Society’s annual event showcasing new performers and songwriters is a valuable coming together of established stars and those about to launch into the industry. Whatever happens at the Tony awards tonight, the future of British musical theatre is looking pretty healthy.

Reviewed on Sunday 9 June 2019 | Image: David Ovenden

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