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More surprises (and embarrassments) of the year….

I have already noted some of the surprises at this year’s Laurence Olivier Awards here, the biggest of which was the triumph of a tiny fringe play, The Mountaintop, over the much bigger hit(ter) of Jerusalem. The Guardian’s “What to say about the Olivier Awards blog even lead with a quote from my blog, “Well, nobody saw that coming. Literally nobody. As Mark Shenton remarks, even Marla Rubin, one of the producers of The Mountaintop, ‘was proudly telling me of their nomination before the ceremony, before adding: ‘But we don’t stand a chance of winning’.’ Yet win best new play it did, despite opening in a 65-seat venue and coming up against both Enron and Jerusalem.”

Later, The Guardian also comments, “Nor were all the winners to everybody’s taste. ‘The winning production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof came from Broadway, where it had failed to secure even a single Tony nomination,’ Shenton observes with what I fancy is a grumbling tone, ‘yet here it was deemed the best of the year’s play revivals in a category that also included Arcadia, The Misanthrope, Three Days of Rain and A View from the Bridge, as well as Streetcar’.”

Actually, I’ll leave the grumbling and rumbling to others.

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Michael Coveney, who wasn’t at the ceremony but listened in on BBC2 radio’s broadcast while driving around Yorkshire, reported, “Presenter Paul Gambaccini was oily and under-informed, while Jodie Prenger on the red carpet — was there a red carpet? it should have been flowing with Jodie’s blood — screeched like a banshee at James Earl Jones: ‘Are you chuffed to bits?’ Before I turned off sharpish and ripped the radio from its housing in the dashboard, I heard Jodie ask Mark Rylance if he, too, was ‘chuffed to bits,’ ditto Jude Law, while Jodie wasted no time in telling us how chuffed to bits she was herself. After five minutes of this you wished she was chopped to bits, and fed to the nominees on little squares of burnt toast, which I bet would have tasted better than the rubbish food you always have to endure at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Jodie sounded like Su Pollard on speed, and gushed incontinently at everyone and every show she had either seen or not seen. Hilariously, everyone she spoke to in their wonderful ‘chuffing’ new shows informed her politely that these shows were puffing their chuffing-well last and all coming off in a week or so’s time. It all painted a bizarre and ghastly picture of West End sycophancy and failure…”

One of the problems of the Oliviers is that, since they are no longer televised, there’s no imperative to bring the proceedings in at a respectable length, so - as I write in the new issue of The Stage, out tomorrow - they “go on forever; so long, in fact, that you’d be excused for thinking that Trevor Nunn was directing operations. Arriving for a pre-awards reception soon after 5pm, and leaving straight after the ceremony without lingering at 10.45pm, I was there for nearly six hours. The ceremony itself - wedged on either side of a swiftly-served fish supper in between - trundled on endlessly through some 25 categories, plus 2 special awards tagged on at the end, so no wonder that by the time Maggie Smith stepped forward to receive her richly deserved lifetime achievement award, she kept it short, saying, ‘You must be very tired’. She was speaking for all of us by then. By contrast, when I hosted this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, they were despatched in little over an hour.”

In a news blog on this site, our news editor Alistair Smith duly notes, “I sat through it, so you don’t have to. Please find below the Reduced Olivier Awards - it’s like the Olivier Awards, but with the boring bits taken out.” And he wryly notes some additional surprises on the night, besides the win for The Mountaintop: “The evening produced some big surprises - The Mountaintop winning Best New Play ahead of Jerusalem and Enron, Wicked producer Michael McCabe referring to leading lady Dianne Pilkington as Diane Langton, and Rupert Goold thinking that his production of Enron is playing at the Novello (it’s at the Noel Coward).”

There are no prizes for critics, of course, at the Oliviers, but last night there was one in the self-same Grosvenor House Ballroom where we’d been on Sunday, with the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts anointed critic of the year at this year’s British Press Awards. Last year, he walked away with the prize for Political Journalist of the Year, with the judges remarking then that he is “simply the best wordsmith in British journalism. His writing is not just funny but sometimes painfully sharp. These sketches are beautifully crafted, insightful columns. Every phrase is instinctively apposite. The observations cut to the core of the daily scene and the jokes are never cheap. Quite the opposite, they are a penetrating analysis of the principles, nature and performance of the politicians about whom he writes.”

I’m not sure everyone would say the same thing about his criticism of the principles, nature and performances of the actors about whom he also writes, though its true that Quentin has taken to the task of theatre critic with undeniable enthusiasm, saying in his acceptance speech last night: “It’s a great privilege to do politics and threatre, it’s not always easy to tell the difference.” In a Guardian profile in 2006, which called him as Britain’s most prolific journalist, they referred to his accession to the Mail’s theatre throne: “When Letts was appointed the paper’s theatre reviewer two years ago, it ruffled feathers among rival critics as well as members of the theatrical establishment. Apart from treading the boards at university, he admits he has no real expertise in the field. In addition, he had succeeded Michael Coveney, a noted theatrical historian, who was himself sacked to make way for the Telegraph’s critic, Charles Spencer, who then changed his mind about switching newspapers. ‘When I first started, [rival critics] decided I was going to be trouble,’ says Letts. ‘And then I went and upset [West End producer] Sonia Friedman quite early on by - they thought - breaking an embargo. I also wrote a piece for the New Statesman about my fellow critics. One hasn’t spoken to me in two years. But a bit like cats being moved in their boxes, eventually they settled down at the thought of this interloper.”

And now he’s been adjudged the best in all of Fleet Street, winning out over Critics’ Circle chairman Charles Spencer, baboon killer AA Gill, Brian Sewell, Craig Brown and Waldemar Januszczak. The critical cats, no doubt, will be twitching their whiskers, but I can hear the purr from here of their interloper!

And while Quentin was basking in the glory of his victory, he was at least being spared the year’s biggest theatrical embarrassment so far. Last night saw Hollywood legend Shirley Jones, who turns 76 this month, making her London stage debut at the Arts, and although someone must have duped her into believing this was a real West End theatre, not the decrepit old dive that it is, it’s lovely to see her there. But someone also thought it might be a good idea to have her joined by one of her actor sons Patrick Cassidy, and I’ve seen nothing quite so embarrassing on the London stage since Lorna Luft brought her solo show Songs my Mother Taught Me (dubbed by one wag on my acquaintance, Songs My Mother Taught My Sister While I was in the Room) to the Savoy a few years ago.

That show, at least, brought out one of my all-time favourite critical snipes: in a review in Time Out, the reviewer commented that Luft wore a shoulderless dress for the second act, “presumably to reveal the absence of a chip”. There’s always something slightly sad about the less successful sibling trying to show their worth, and Patrick Cassidy underlines the difference here by staging a duet with a hand-held facemask of his more famous half-brother David Cassidy.

He also claims to be the victim of heterophobia, and takes great pains to reassure us he’s straight: “Why can’t a man love showtunes and Judy Garland and want to have sex with her?” He then proceeds to sing a song about his passion for his wife, which involves him virtually dry-humping a portrait of her. I literally didn’t know where to look.

Still, at least I can now say I have collected almost the entire set of Cassidy brothers: David did Time (in every sense, in Dave Clark’s 1980s shocker at the Dominion), while Shaun once starred in a London production of Bus Stop with Jerry Hall at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue.

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