A Varied WhatsOnStage Awards Celebrate The West End's Breadth
The 18th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards, held at the Prince of Wales Theatre last night, was a fast-paced ceremony with great performances and an enthusiastic crowd.
The awards differ from many others, as they're voted for by theatregoers online. This year, it meant that while a few shows took several awards, no one show dominated enough to take the excitement away. (Find the full list of winners here)
The evening opened with a medley from recent movie-musical The Greatest Showman, performed by Matthew Croke, Jonny Labey, Christine Allado, Melanie La Berrie, and the West End Gospel Singers. Both women's solos were especially stunning, and the high energy of the piece set the tone for the ceremony.
Vikki Stone and Trevor Dion Nicholas proved to be hilarious hosts who worked well together. Stone, a comedian, composer, and musician, hosted the awards last year, but newbie Trevor Dion Nicholas, an American currently playing the Genie in Aladdin, held his own. Their running gag was that Stone wanted to take over his role, even starting the show in a makeshift Genie costume of a blue IKEA bag and blue tights.
42nd Street was the big winner of the night, taking home four gongs, including Best Musical Revival and most of the technical awards. It was closely followed by homegrown hit Everybody's Talking About Jamie, which began life at Sheffield Crucible and was brought to the West End by producer Nica Burns.
That gamble paid off, as Jamie took home three awards: Best New Musical, Best Actor in a Musical for John McCrea, and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for Lucie Shorthouse. In her speech, Shorthouse called it "a show about celebrating your authenticity and who you are".
Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman came out on top for plays, winning Best Play, Best Direction for Sam Mendes, and Best Supporting Actor for Fra Fee. After claiming the first award of the night, Fee joked that if he'd known he was going to win, "I wouldn't have had those eight pints" - which other winners continued to play off throughout the show.
Broadchurch co-stars Olivia Colman and David Tennant took home Best Actress and Best Actor in a play for, respectively, Mosquitoes and Don Juan in Soho. Tennant was unable to attend but sent a video message and his son in his place; his son's speech about how much he looks up to his father, but how happy he was to get to collect the award himself, was easily one of the most endearing.
Carrie Hope Fletcher took home Best Actress in a Musical for The Addams Family and spoke about her character's message, teaching "a younger generation that you don't have to sacrifice who you are in order for someone to love you".
Juliet Stevenson won Best Supporting Actress in a Play for Hamlet and expressed her initial difficulties with the role of Gertrude and her frequent silences, and how she worked with director Robert Icke to give meaning to them.
Sunset Boulevard won Best Regional Show, while Hair took Best Off-West End Production. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child won out over all the musicals in the Best West End Show category, with leads Jamie Glover, Rakie Ayola, and Tom Aldridge managing to collect the award despite having done an evening show.
Two new awards were presented this year. Best Original Cast Recording went to Les Misérables, with Claude-Michel Schonberg himself accepting it. Best Show Poster went to Cursed Child (which came out incredibly well in the awards despite not being eligible for most of them). Designer Simon Williams accepted the award and won audience applause when he revealed that it was his own children who presented it to him.
The true winner of the night was Sonia Friedman, who not only took home the Equity Award for Services to Theatre, but also had eight wins for Sonia Friedman Productions. Sam Mendes called her "the leading producer of theatre in the English-speaking world" and "a ball of energy", while award recipients throughout the night commended her dedication to art and artists.
Friedman said that this award wasn't the end for her, but rather, "I feel I'm just beginning to understand what I can do". It was a wonderful moment to recognise a powerful woman in the theatre industry, though the show overall seemed to miss an opportunity to comment on the current situation for women in the workplace and the #MeToo movement.
The only reference was a joke at the beginning about showing a memorial for all the careers that died this year. After the more incisive commentary of the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, it felt a bit strange to not mention the current gender politics.
However, the show had eight wonderful performances, with casts ranging from Bat Out of Hell to 42nd Street.
Highlights included Janie Dee delivering a superb rendition of "Could I Leave You?" from Follies, and Liam Tamne and Siubhan Harrison's "A Very Good Day", the touching new song written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Working.
The show closed - appropriately enough - with the rousing title song from Everybody's Talking About Jamie that had the audience clapping along.
One performance that was a bit puzzling was a medley billed as a WhatsOnStage wish list of shows they hope transfer to London. Tyrone Huntley performed "Waving Through a Window" from Dear Evan Hansen, Alice Fearn "She Used to Be Mine" from Waitress, and Hannah Jane Fox "Me and the Sky" from Come From Away.
While their performances were wonderful, especially Huntley's, it seemed strange to give time to Broadway shows when not all the nominees for Best New Musical and Best Musical Revival performed. It was time that might have been better used for a performance from Young Frankenstein or even one of the Best West End Show nominees, or championing other British projects.
Such awards do always raise the question of whether they're more a popularity contest, and many of the winners acknowledged it, with Fra Fee even joking that if Nathan Lane was on Twitter he would have won.
Still, the recipients all seemed genuinely grateful to the audiences who voted for them, and the range of winners - many also lauded by critical bodies - reflect an industry in great health. From revivals of American classics to the emergence of great British work, crucially championed by producers like Friedman, it really is a time to celebrate the increasing breadth and brilliance of the West End.
Photo Credit: Dan Wooller