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Image: Coventry’s Albany Theatre

by Rod Chaytor, NDFA National Council & Chair, All-Winners Sub-Committee

The National Drama Festivals Association (NDFA) has just spent the week in Coventry at the UK City of Culture’s Albany Theatre.
The reason was the All-Winners Finals were taking place as they tend to each and every year. However, and it’s a pretty big ‘however’, this year isn’t your usual year and comes at the tailend of a traumatic sixteen-month pandemic which has closed down the entire theatre industry, arguably since March 2020.
Add on a four-week government delay to the eradication of Covid restrictions and all of a sudden the All-Winners Finals need to set out exactly how things are going to play out.
With all of the week’s workshops cancelled along with other extra events, social distancing being employed and the public wary about buying tickets (see page 8), most associations might throw the towel in… but most associations aren’t NDFA – and NDFA loves the Albany!

Launching a national drama festival for the first time in a new location in the teeth of a global pandemic is not something I would necessarily recommend, but we pressed ahead if only for the benefit of the participating teams who – like all theatre groups – were just desperate to get up there on stage and perform. Oh, and a planned performance by the Leamington Spa access theatre group, Side By Side, also had to be scrapped.

We were on tenterhooks all week in case the Festival was wrecked by Covid but, in the end, ironically, the only play we lost was because an actor tripped over and badly sprained his ankle at home.
Audience numbers were clearly affected, but we look to build on those in the hope that things are better next year. We were particularly saddened to lose the Conference and the performance by Side By Side, many of whose vulnerable members were self-isolating and therefore physically unable to rehearse. But these two events will be the first names on the team-sheet when we start planning for next year.

The National Drama Festival Association’s All-Winners Finals is to return to Coventry next year. It is believed to be the first time in the organisation’s near sixty-year-old history that the annual event has returned to the same venue two years running – and the city’s Albany Theatre could now become its permanent home.

NDFA Chair Stewart Mison said: “The All-Winners chose Coventry because it has a wealth of drama festivals and drama groups within a twenty-five-mile catchment area and also because 2021 is Coventry’s UK’s City of Culture Year. “What we did not necessarily anticipate, but were then delighted to find, was a superb venue in The Albany with a wonderfully-welcoming as well as solidly professional team both front and back of house.

“Throughout its long history, the All-Winners has been deliberately peripatetic, moving on each year and with no permanent home. But maybe Coventry, with its superb transport links and such a great venue in The Albany, will become just that. It is certainly worth a serious look and, in the meantime, it is great news that we anticipate coming back next year.”

The week-long NDFA All-Winners features full-length, one-act and youth competitions with awards handed out in all categories. Participants are marked according to the Guild of Drama Adjudicators scorecard with the winners announced by the adjudicator – this year, Paul Fowler a former Chair of the Guild.

He said of the Coventry All-Winners: “This is the first time that this event – the pinnacle of the competitive drama festivals movement in the UK – has been held in this vibrant Midlands city, and I am delighted to hear that it won’t be the last. “The fourteen community theatre companies – hailing from as far away as Nantwich in Cheshire and Woking in Surrey, as well as local teams from Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire – were unanimous in their praise for the venue and the art-deco gem that is The Albany.

“And there are ambitious plans to complement the theatre with more studio space, rehearsal rooms and a revamped foyer and bar area next year.

“The completed theatre complex will be the envy of the UK’s amateur theatre community and Coventry’s highly-accessible location will make it even more attractive when unrestricted theatre-going becomes the norm once again.

“Previous British All-Winners have been staged in many different theatre venues all over the country, but if thoughts of a move towards a permanent home for the event are fulfilled, then the Albany Theatre could be the ideal candidate, bringing a major event to the heart of England for many years to come.”

Kyle Goold as Tommo in Limitless Productions’ Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

This year’s winners included the Limitless Academy from Royston, Herts, who brought a moving one-man show, Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. The monologue, performed by eighteen-year-old Kyle Goold and directed by Peter McNally, won the NDFA Youth Trophy. Adjudicator Paul Fowler said: Private Peaceful from Limitless Academy was a superb example of just how engaging and moving theatre can be. Teenager Kyle Goold’s solo performance of Michael Morpurgo’s doomed Great War soldier was one of great power and subtlety, matching focused physicality with vocal versatility – a worthy winner.”

The IMPACT youth group from Tamworth, Staffs, won the prize for the most promising youth participation with Shuddersome Tales of Poe, an adaptation of three stories from the pen of the American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Rebekah Fortune.

The adjudicator added:”IMPACT Youth Theatre’s stylish re-telling of three stories from Edgar Alan Poe in Shuddersome Tales of Poe was a visually striking piece that combined mime and movement skills of a high quality with impressive choral speaking and a strong sense of ensemble playing that richly deserved the award.” The same director, Rebekah Fortune, also picked up the Irving Trophy for the Best One-Act Play with her adult group, TACT, portraying a harrowing story of serial abuse in Five Kinds Of Silence.

In the full-length plays section, Georgia Kelly from Coventry’s Criterion Theatre won the Adjudicator’s Award for her performance as cross-dressing Bobby in a collection of seven monologues, Queers. The same production also won the Criterion – who were the Festival’s first-ever wild card entry – the Runners Up Amateur Stage Trophy in the full-length section and two more of the same company, Gareth Cooper and Anne-marie Greene, were highly commended.

Ruth Kelly and Emma Francis in Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins

Ruth Kelly and Emma Francis in Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins were also praised for their strong acting skills.

The overall winner in the full-length section was the Hertford-based Company of Players for their production of David Haig’s Pressure which tells the story of the conflicts between two military weathermen, one American and one Scottish, as the countdown begins to the Allies’ D-Day invasion. The production ended with the casts’ sepia uniformed images being projected onto a back screen alongside pictures of the real-life characters they had played.

Adjudicator Paul Fowler said: “The Company of Players turned the unlikely topic of weather forecasting into a compelling story with an intelligent and riveting portrayal of Group Captain Stagg and a truly memorable curtain call.”

The prizes were presented by Coventry’s Lord Mayor, Cllr. John McNicholas, and the City’s West End musicals legend Dave Willetts who took the lead in London productions as both Jean Valjean in Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Mis and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. After presenting the

IMPACT Youth Theatre production of Shudersome Tales of Poe by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Rebekah Fortune

awards, Dave Willetts told the audience: “I was very excited at the prospect of being back in the theatre after the longest of eighteen months. I felt a warm glow in my stomach as I walked in.

“Despite my thirty-eight years as a professional, tonight brought me back to where I started – back to where I belong. To see the casts and crew giving their all re-affirmed to me that amateur theatre is the backbone of the community.”

Although the evening Festival competition went ahead as planned, some ‘fringe’ events had to be cancelled because of the Covid pandemic, including a Les Mis masterclass by Dave Willetts, workshops by RSC Practitioners, and a one-day Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in UK Amateur Theatre which would have been led by, among others, the Artistic Director of Coventry’s Criterion Theatre, Professor of Diversity Anne-marie Greene.

Full list of awards…

Best Comedy Moment:

John Scowen Award for Comedy.
Ross’s hilarious exhibition of Dad dancing that opened Scene Three of Raving from Thursday Night Project.

One Act Plays…

The Sydney Fisher Trophy (one act)
chosen by the Festival host’s backstage crew – TACT.

Adjudicator Award:
The Amateur Theatre Trophy (one act). Stephen Fortune Smith as the vile Billy in Five Kinds of Silence.

NDFA Council Trophy (one act)
Under Milk Wood – Spiral Curtain.

The Irving Trophy (one act)
Five Kinds of Silence – TACT.

Full Length Plays…

The Sydney Fisher Trophy (chosen by the backstage crew). White Cobra

Adjudicator Award:
Felixstowe Festival Trophy.
Georgia Kelly for her performance as cross-dressing Bobby in Queers – Criterion Theatre.

Best Full-Length Play:

Runners Up:

Amateur Stage Trophy.
Criterion Theatre – Queers.


Mary Blakeman Trophy.
Company of Players – Pressure.