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Swan Upping

by on 7 August 2020

Clipped Swans Fly

Swan Upping

Retrospective by Mark Aspen

Coronavirus has claimed another victim: the annual royal tradition of Swan Upping on the River Thames.  For the first time since the 12th century the full ceremony has been cancelled this year.  Normally for five days at the end of July the river between Abingdon in Oxfordshire and Sunbury-on-Thames buzzes with excitement as crowds watch the river’s population of mute swans being marked and a census undertaken on behalf of the Queen.

Swan Master (Andrew Crowley)

The Crown has sovereign ownership of all the swans.  However, for the past four hundred years, rights over swans have been granted by the monarch.  The only bodies currently exercising these such rights are two livery companies of the City of London.  Nowadays, ownership of swans in the Thames is shared equally among the Crown, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company.   The event is carried out from traditional rowing skiffs under the supervision of Royal Swan Uppers wearing scarlet uniforms, who weigh and measure cygnets and check on the swans’ welfare, along with swan uppers from the livery companies.  The cygnets are ringed to denote whether they belong to the Vintners or the Dyers, whilst Crown birds are left unmarked.  Previously marking used to by clipping nicks from the edge of the beaks of Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies’ birds.

SwanUpping Skiffs

A mile or so downstream in the London Borough Richmond upon Thames, Swans have had their wings clipped this year as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak … …  The Swan Awards are Arts Richmond’s local “Oscars” for the best in the non-commercial theatre within the Borough.  Normally the season runs from September to July, but this year’s coronavirus restrictions brought the Swans down from the sky in mid-March.

This weekend the Nominations for these Awards for the truncated 2019-2020 season were announced.  Normally, there are multiple entries from Arts Richmond’s affiliated drama societies.  This year ten of the twelve societies submitting shows had only the opportunity to produce one show.  The two bigger societies, Richmond Shakespeare Society and Teddington Theatre Club, however, had the chance to mount five and seven shows respectively.

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Alas, there were only two musicals this year.  HLO Musical Company’s The Pirates of Penzance picked up five nominations for performers and for Best Musical.  Our reviewer, Eliza Hall thought it provided “a delightful night of song and dance of exceptional brilliance”.  Barnes and Richmond Operatic Society’s nominations reached a staggering eight, again for Best Musical and for performers, for its “slick and innovative production”, in the words of Helen Astrid, of Stephen Sondheim’s “gruesome and gripping” Sweeney Todd.

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Shining2A most welcome return to the Swan Awards was Park Players, a company absent for a few years.  And what a great come-back!  Its offering, These Shining Lives, recommended by Eleanor Lewis as “a warm, absorbing and uplifting story, well told”, netted three nominations, not only for Best Play but for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.

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Three of the smallest companies, Edmundians, Barnes Community Players, and SMDG, who put on one show each were rewarded with two nominations apiece.  Mary Stoakes congratulated the Edmundians for “carrying on this great British tradition” of the family pantomime, with Jack and the Beanstalk which was nominated for Best Design Element (the eponymous beanstalk) and for Best Girl Actress (fourteen year-old Amelia Smith).  RHoodBabes7 BCP also mounted a pantomime, a hybrid, Robin Hood and Babes in the Wood.  It was all “glorious fun”, enthused Andrew Lawston and the show earnt nominations for Best Supporting Female Performer and for Best Young Performer (sixteen year old Thaisa Smart, “a gung-ho and energetic principal boy”). The “precious gentle material” of SMDG’s 84 Charing Cross Road impressed Eleanor Lewis, as the company presented “this greatly valued gem of 20th century writing” with such great style, so much so that it has gained a nomination for Best Design Element for its “atmospheric” set, in addition to Best Supporting Actor (Graham Beresford, who “completes the period feel” of the piece).

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It may not have escaped your attention that teenagers taking part in these productions have done pretty well for nominations.  However, it is surely a great accolade to the talents of our young performers that most of the shows with high numbers of nominations have been by casts solely comprising young performers.  There has been two such productions and both have been considered worthy of nominations not only RSSDream_tshore_Rehearsal02_04for Best Youth Production but also for Best Design Element.  Eleanor Marsh felt that Dream by RSS Young Actors Company was “a visual delight … that immediately gives the impression that the audience is going to experience something other-worldly”.   Our second reviewer, Milly Stephens, herself a teenager, thought the setting “made the show feel even more magical and mysterious”.  With nominations for performers, Dream took four nominations.  Even more remarkably, The Wizard of Oz double this number with a cast all under fourteen years old.  Claire Alexander noted that “enthusiasm and commitment shone from everyone” and she particularly “liked the gauze curtain against which were projected … the animated horse, and the untethered balloon” thaWizOz6342t led to this show picking up its nomination for Best Design Element.  Both of these young thespians’ shows have deservedly been award a plethora of Best Performer nominations.

Then there is The Cygnet Award for companies caged in by their production space.  One such company is Q2 Players, who perform in the National Archives at Kew, the “non-dedicated theatrical environment” of the Swan regulations.  Q2 were the sole nominees this year for Living Memory, a piece of new writing by Genni Trickett (who is also a Mark Aspen critic), expounded with “quirky performances from its supporting cast” as Melissa Syversen noted.LivMemPromo6

So what of the two big boys on the block?  Richmond Shakespeare Society’s production The Father has a nomination for Best Play as well as two nominations for acting.  Eleanor Lewis recommend Florian Zeller’s “clever” play as “surprisingly absorbing”.  She thought the society’s production of the Eugene O’Neill classic A Long Day’s Journey into Night was “the one to go to”.  It too has two nominations for acting, together with a nomination for Best Design Element for its “understated sound effects [and] subtle lighting”.

Teddington Theatre Club’s fuller production schedule enabled it to take a slightly greater share of the nominations for six dramas and one pantomime.   Having described BCP’s panto as a hybrid, TTC was a real mongrel of musical, sci-fi and panto. Matthew Grierson described King Arthur in Space as “a bold go at somewhere panto has never gone before”.  On the way though it managed three performer nominations, plus Best Musical and Best Design Element, the latter for its “helpfully colour-coordinated” costumes.

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Two of TTC’s dramas have been nominated for Best Play.  Melissa Syversen “shed a tear” at the “moving, heartfelt piece of theatre” that was The Revlon Girl, whereas Pornography made her “dramaturg’s heart happy just to think” about the “sheer level of details”.  These details netted it a Best Design Element nomination.  Indeed TTC has done rather well for Best Design Element nomination, for the costumes in Amadeus, “an accurate a picture of 18th century Vienna”, said Claire Alexander; and Daisy Pulls It Off for the “wonderfully designed interior representation” that Celia Bard liked so much.  These two shows plus Cause Célèbre, whose casting Eleanor Lewis described as a “master stroke”; and Marvin’s Room, which Helen Astrid found “wry, sombre yet clever”, earnt TTC a slew of actors’ and actresses’ nominations.

The Swan Awards a normally presented to the winners selected from the nominees at a glittering black-tie ceremony in the autumn.  It remains to be seen if coronavirus claims yet another victim, but one could speculate that social distancing might preclude this for a fair while.  However, mute swans don’t migrate, so stick around for Arts Richmond’s Swan upping when the wings need no more clipping.

Mark Aspen, August 2020

Photography by Andrew Crowley, John Malone, PND, Philip Hollis, Juliette Wait, Patrick van de Bergh, Bill Bulford, Tom Shore, Bomi Cooper, Cat Lamin, Timeline, Pete Messum, Joe Stockwell, Jojo Leppink, Dave Shortland, Rebecca Dowbiggin, Sarah Carter and Cath Messum

 

 

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