In a Guardian blog last week, Matt Trueman asked if the Olivier Awards really represent London theatre, and he pointed out such apparent anomalies as the omissions from the nominations list of Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, Lisa Dillon in Knot of the Heart, Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins in Constellations, and the failure of most of London’s major new writing theatres to be even considered for their work in the best play category.
But that’s to miss the point: the Oliviers are, without denial or apology, presented by the Society of London Theatres, to recognise shows in its member theatres only. Sure, there’s some confusion caused by the notion of what it calls affiliate theatres (and has one, catch-all category to honour), but really, this is a pat on the back from a sector of London’s theatreland to itself, much as the Tonys fulfill the same function on Broadway.
At least in London there’s a lot more for the nominators to choose their shortlist from: the entire Broadway season for this year’s Tony Awards (reaching the homestretch of eligibility this week and next) comprises just 37 shows.
There is one key difference, however, in the way the awards are run: whereas on Broadway the nominations list is drawn up by a panel of specially appointed industry insiders (who are specially vetted each year for conflicts of interest) of around 30 people, which is then put to a larger constituency of voters (some 700 or so, many of whom vote not for excellence but for vested interests), here in London the entire SOLT membership vote on the nominations and the awards themselves are then voted on by a far smaller panel made up partly of theatre professionals and partly of members of the public who are chosen specially for the task by applying to be on it.
It creates the interesting tension and contrast that while the results on Broadway are therefore likely to be distorted by lobbying and popularity contests, the nominations process is comparatively unsullied, achieved by the workings of an independent panel; whereas in London, the nominations are achieved by a different kind of consensus but the awards themselves are decided independently.
It does, however, inevitably produce some results that are truly baffling. No one will ever forget the instance two years ago where The Mountaintop came from nowhere — well, a small pub in Battersea, to be precise, via a run at the Trafalgar Studios to make it eligible — to ‘steal’ the Best Play award from Enron and Jerusalem.
This year, the Best Play win was another surprise: John Hodge’s Collaborators winning out over One Man Two Guvnors, which also went home empty-handed in the other categories for which it had been nominated, including Best Actor nominee James Corden, Best Performance in a Supporting Role nominee Oliver Chris, Best Director nominee Nicholas Hytner and Best Set Designer Mark Thompson.
But if One Man Two Guvnors felt robbed, Matilda broke the record previously set by another RSC production of over thirty years ago, Nicholas Nickleby, to win seven Oliviers (against Nickleby’s six). One of those seven wins was a joint Best Actress in a Musical award to the four young girls — aged 10-12 and the youngest-ever winners of an Olivier — who originated and shared the title role between them.
That wasn’t the only single award shared by more than one person: Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller also shared the Best Actor Award for their performances in the National’s Frankenstein in which they alternated the title role and that of the creature.
There are, in fact, six awards presented for performance categories in all, with further awards to Best Actress, Best Performance in a Supporting Role, Best Actor in a Musical and Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical, so across those six categories there are a total of ten winning names, which is a bit perverse, though not entirely unprecedented: a few years ago the entire chorus of Jerry Springer - the Opera was named for the supporting role category.
Another curious anomaly: the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Anna Christie was named Best Revival — yet its director Rob Ashford failed to even get nominated for Best Director. While the award for Best Play went to Collaborators, for which director Nick Hytner was not nominated either, at least there the choice is being made on the material; with a revival, the award is essentially about the production, which is basically down to the director, his cast (whose star Ruth Wilson also won the Best Actress award) and designer.
But finally, too, it’s also all about the numbers, and its striking that only 8 productions have actually won anything in the main categories (excluding opera, dance and the affiliate theatre award). And it is even more striking that, apart from Matilda, the returning Collaborators and the soon-to-return Derren Brown — Svengali (named Best Entertainment), the other wins are for productions either long shut or in the case of Nigel Harman’s Shrek win, for a role he has since relinquished.