OLIVIERS 2014: From the Party in the Covent Garden Piazza
On a perfect spring evening, Covent Garden was buzzing more than ever as I pushed past the men doing that "hover above the pavement" trick you see in all capital cities and the statue-still spray-painted street "entertainers" to pitch up at the Piazza for the big stage and big screens of the Oliviers 2014.
There was a decent turnout of tourists and - as proved by some impressive singalong work - real fans of musical theatre for the 90 minutes Oliviers pre-show er... show. It was particularly pleasing to see so many teens in the crowd - big shows need to find more ways to attract their audiences of tomorrow.
Though it's handy to see some West End stars for free, if truth be told, the set-up isn't quite right. Our hosts, Myleene Klass and Michael Xavier, haven't rehearsed (as Michael joshingly admitted), struggled to read their card prompts with any fluency and seemed as surprised as anyone by the running order. They got plenty of plugs in for the sponsors amidst the banter, but it was just a bit amateurish, a bit too much like a school's end-of-term showcase - curiously so, on an evening dedicated to theatrical excellence.
At 6.30pm, the Avenue Q puppets wrapped up the live songs (the cast from Les Mis with their anthems were the pick and the poor girl from Matilda the least successful, left alone on a huge stage) and the audience thinned out a little, as Stephen Mangan and Gemma Arterton were beamed in from the nearby Royal Opera House, the venue for the Olivier Awards Ceremony. All the infuriating mushiness and volume spikes in the stage show's acoustics disappeared and the voices became crystal clear. And very welcome were those voices: Mr Mangan drily funny and Ms Arterton as silky smooth in delivery as she was in her bias cut gown.
We were soon into the well-known orthodoxy of award show discourse: presenters honoured to be there; winners visibly shocked and keen to thank their colleagues; interludes of slick highlights from nominated shows. It's soon hard to tell one middle-aged man in a dinner jacket from another (was he Best Choreography or Best Lighting?) and the fun of trying to work out who's sitting just behind Dame Judi in the stalls ebbs as the cold sets in. So I took my leave, and stepped out of the Covent Garden bubble and back into real London.
Though there's plenty of room for improvement in the event, it's not a bad idea to have the Oliviers on a big screen live feed supported by a pre-show of West End highlights. But why Covent Garden? Surely it would be better to set the thing up on Clapham Common or maybe Primrose Hill? There would be fewer tourists obliviously chatting through the numbers and there might be more Londoners exposed to the glorious variety of the metropolis' theatre. Some may even invest in a Mastercard.