BWW Feature: Favourite Olivier Awards Memories and Our 2020 Winners
Sadly, the 2020 Olivier Awards won't be going ahead as planned due to the coronavirus shutdown, although ITV will broadcast a highlights show. So, BroadwayWorld reviewers have been thinking back to some of our favourite Oliviers winners, nominees and performances from past years - plus some of the incredible nominees from this year who we would have loved to see honoured.
Favourite Olivier Awards memories
Caroline Cronin: In the summer of 2016, Tim Minchin's brilliant musical Groundhog Day hit our shores for its world premiere, residing at the Old Vic for a limited run. I was lucky enough to get hold of two tickets during the short time it was with us, and completely fell in love with it.
So, imagine my delight when I realised that Minchin would be performing a song from the show at the 2017 Olivier Awards ceremony, which I would be attending. The score is varied in tone and pace, each song incredibly complex in its lyricism - and Minchin chose to perform "Hope", a rock ballad that takes place near the top of Act II, when protagonist Phil is in a very bleak place.
The meaning behind "Hope" is contrary to its title - talking about Phil's determined hope that he will eventually succeed in killing himself, to escape the unbearable monotony and repetition of his daily life. It's a really impactful moment in the story, and seeing Minchin perform it alongside some of the London cast was a special moment for me. It went on to deservedly win two Olivier Awards that year, for Best New Musical and Best Actor (for Andy Karl).
Emma Watkins: I was an Oliviers public panellist for the 2015 Awards. I saw - and loved - things I might not have otherwise taken a chance on (King Charles III, Wolf Hall, Fathers and Sons, Hetty Feather and Accolade, to name a few). I got to meet a lovely bunch of like-minded theatre enthusiasts and debate with them over three hours and a glass of champagne about what should be on the longlists and shortlists.
As for the winners, Es Devlin's infinitely mirrored and tree-lined set really made The Nether for me, creating a beautiful virtual reality world that was in stark contrast to the ugly goings-on inside it, so I was happy to see her awarded with Best Set Design. King Charles III HAD to win Best New Play: stirring, fascinating, clever and performed by a fabulous cast.
I was particularly pleased for Penelope Wilton winning Best Actress. Her performance in Taken at Midnight was still, dignified and understated, and thoroughly deserving of recognition. It takes real skill to make such a performance, in a play with such troubling subject matter, the standout of the year.
I was also very happy for Sergio Trujillo winning Best Theatre Choreographer for Memphis The Musical. For me, it was head and shoulders above any other choreography I saw in a theatre during the year, and to see a man so genuinely thrilled to win an award is a joy indeed.
And I was really chuffed that Sunny Afternoon did so well - Best New Musical, Outstanding Achievement in Music for Ray Davies, Best Actor for John Dagleish and Best Supporting Actor for George Maguire. It's a 'jukebox' musical of sorts, but it has more heart, a funnier, less clichéd script, and better all-round performances than any jukebox musical I've seen. Also, it was the only nominated new musical that was fully British. Call me patriotic, but it was important to show that the UK can still produce something to stand up to all the Broadway imports.
Gary Naylor: I need only quote from my January 2011 review of OperaUpClose's boutique production Bangkok Butterfly: "Where are the fat middle-aged men cast as lithe young lotharios; the middle-aged women playing teenagers; the overcooked spectacle and bombast; and the words, that, when you can make them out at all, are impenetrably foreign?". That was what I expected, but not what was served up.
A few weeks later, the same OperaUpClose company won the 2011 Olivier for Best New Opera Production for their 2010 La Bohème - which changed their lives. I was to review the show some four years later, but, by that time, my life had been changed plenty too.
A whole new art form had opened up to me, one rich in history, gloriously transnational in all its elements and, would you believe it, yawningly accessible. Soon, there were more productions popping up in rooms above pubs, in railway vaults and even deep underground, but whether the boutique opera would have taken off quite so spectacularly without the extraordinary recognition for an extraordinary show - well, who knows?
Marianka Swain: Like many, I was dazzled by Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, so it was wonderful to see it nab five trophies at the 2014 Olivier Awards. We still - still - haven't achieved gender parity in British theatre, but Kirkwood and her female creative collaborators (director Lyndsey Turner, designer Es Devlin and sound designer Carolyn Downing) are among those proving with every project that they deserve the big stages, big budgets and big prizes.
That year also saw the belated triumph of Stephen Sondheim's problem child Merrily We Roll Along, winning Best Musical Revival for Maria Friedman's gorgeous production. It seems the UK has some kind of magic for rebirthing Sondheim's shows, with Marianne Elliott's Company and Dominic Cooke's Follies both hugely deserving winners in 2019 and 2018 respectively.
Another American composer has been fully embraced this side of the pond: the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has presented a radical, creatively fresh and inspiring vision of how musical theatre might evolve. I adored his In the Heights at Southwark Playhouse and King's Cross Theatre, and it was a delight, at the 2016 Oliviers, to see David Bedella take Best Supporting Actor and now-superstar director/choreographer Drew McOnie win for his innovative movement, plus Miranda, Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman honoured for their dynamic score. Although, for my money, it should have picked up Best Musical, too, instead of Kinky Boots - much as I enjoyed the latter.
The almighty Hamilton didn't dominate to quite the extent that it did at the Tony Awards, but still came away with an impressive seven trophies. It was a particular joy seeing the actors of colour who had become overnight stars via Hamilton honoured at the ceremony, including Giles Terera narrowly beating co-star Jamael Westman to Best Actor. However, it was the English monarch who nabbed Best Supporting Actor - Michael Jibson as King George III holding off fierce competition from fellow Hamilton actors Jason Pennycooke and Cleve September.
In a fascinating contrast of musical theatre styles - and reflecting a particularly creative year - we also saw Shirley Henderson take Best Actress for Conor McPherson's exquisite Bob Dylan show Girl from the North Country and Sheila Atim win Best Supporting Actress. The latter produced the most spellbinding performance on the night, reducing a packed audience to awed silence with her "Tight Connection to My Heart". It still gives me chills.
Jonathan Marshall: 2014 was certainly a year for fans of Arthur Miller, with two of his classics performed in wildly different imaginings across London.
Richard Armitage was electrifying in The Crucible. The production saw the grand space of the Old Vic converted into a far more intimate setting. Having the audience in the round only enhanced the unwavering tension which prevailed throughout the three-hour-plus running time. Director Yaël Farber resisted any temptation to update the classic, instead powerfully reminding us that its themes remain relevant and that Miller still has a voice that demands to be listened to. Haunting, restless, disturbing and utterly unforgettable, the production was nominated for the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Revival and Armitage was deservedly in the running for Best Actor.
That award went to Mark Strong for Miller's A View from the Bridge. Ivo van Hove's pioneering production consisted of a sparse stage, stripped of anything in the way of props and scenery. Instead, all focus was directed towards character, dialogue and of course the many themes Miller explores.
Enjoying an esteemed run at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End and later Broadway, the production got everybody talking. Van Hove's simplicity ushered an almost unbearable level of tension, which was so well sustained throughout. The cast were simply sensational, with Phoebe Fox nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Joining Mark Strong in the winners' list was van Hove for Best Director and the play also took the well-warranted prize of Best Revival. A memorable masterpiece and van Hove at the top of his game.
2014 also saw another revered writing force revisited with a sell-out production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, also at the Young Vic. Gillian Anderson delivered a completely compelling career high as one of literature's greatest characters, Blanche DuBois. Mesmerising and haunting, the actress invited both laughter and sympathy in her portrayal of the troubled southern belle.
With stellar (no pun intended) support from the wonderful Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster, the production was perfectly judged in every way. Director Benedict Andrews opted for a modern, almost Ikea-like set, rotating throughout as the tension builds towards a devastating climax. Permitting us a version of the play unlike anything we'd seen before, this clever, claustrophobic depiction injected adrenaline into the heart of Williams' work, reviving it in a respectful yet radical way.
It was the hottest ticket in town and rightfully nominated for Best Revival. While Anderson didn't convert her nomination for Best Actress into a win, the performance certainly cemented her as an actor with incredible range far beyond that of the television role which made her famous.
Our 2020 Olivier Awards winners
Jonathan Marshall: 2019 also enjoyed two enthralling Miller revivals. Oscar winner Sally Field, who is surprisingly not nominated this year, made her West End debut in All My Sons. The Old Vic production chose to stay loyal to the text rather than offering a radical new interpretation. The acting, however, was electrifying, with Field mastering her character's multi-faceted personality and showcasing her many hidden flaws in a way only the very best actors are capable. Colin Morgan provided exceptional support and was subsequently nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
But the big talking point was the groundbreaking Death of a Salesman, performed for the first time with a cast of colour. Wendell Pierce was in the running for Best Actor, although with Andrew Scott set to pose a real threat for his very well-received turn in Present Laughter. However, Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's production also had Sharon D. Clarke up for Best Actress, Arinzé Kene for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, plus Best Revival and Best Director nominations - an impressive list.
Caroline Cronin: In Conor McPherson's incredibly engaging production of Uncle Vanya, Toby Jones (nominated for Best Actor in a Play) inhabits the titular character with a self-pitying sense of dissolution, whilst playing the lines for laughs with such precision that Chekhov himself would surely approve. His Vanya is extremely likeable in his deprecation and brings such truth to the role that one cannot help but be deeply moved by him. Toby Jones for the win, please.
When an obvious choice is the right choice: Sam Tutty blew me away with his nuanced portrayal of Evan Hansen last year, so is my top choice for the hotly contested category of Best Actor in a Musical. Taking on such delicate material whilst being relatively inexperienced and delivering it in such a sympathetic and accomplished way is no small feat. The physical and mental impact this role must have on the actor shouldn't be underestimated, and having seen Tutty several times in the role, he shows no signs of waning.
Finally, & Juliet is a high-energy, fun, intelligent show that reimagines classic Max Martin hits from the 90s, and mashes them up with a rewritten Shakespearean story to create a very zeitgeist-y production for the masses. I interviewed Oliver Tompsett (who plays Shakespeare) back in November and we spoke about the vibrancy of the visuals and how the creative team weren't afraid of throwing everything at it to make it look, in Tompsett's words, "sensational".
The work of Paloma Young and Soutra Gilmour (nominated for Best Costume and Best Set Design respectively) complements each other beautifully to create an outrageous burst of colour on stage that reflects the exuberance of the performances. Not only that, they've achieved the perfect blend of modernity and historical imagery - particularly via the Elizabethan elements in the costumes. Young and Gilmour have given birth to a stunning spectacle.
Aliya Al-Hassan: For me, there are two productions that deserved several awards this year: Cyrano De Bergerac, as Best Revival, Best Actor for James McAvoy as Cyrano and Best Director for Jamie Lloyd; and Amélie, particularly for Best Actress in a Musical for Audrey Brisson in the title role.
When first reviewing Cyrano de Bergerac, I was blown away by the whole production. It felt so fresh, vibrant, inclusive and truly innovative. From the incredible way that Martin Crimp dealt with the poetic nature of the script, to the diversity within the cast, to the stark and unusual direction by Jamie Lloyd, it felt like a production that so many more people deserved to see than the diminutive Playhouse Theatre could hold. I went home after press night and immediately bought a ticket to see it again.
I was therefore delighted to see that it was being included in the NT Live series, broadcast to thousands of cinemas. It was during this screening that the absolute power of the performance by James McAvoy was cemented in my mind. In the theatre he was captivating, but it was with the close-up shots afforded by the cameras that he seemed to come even more alive in the role.
There's a particular scene that I've mentioned several times, where he speaks to Roxane in Christian's place, and he looks straight down the camera lens as it zooms oh-so-slowly into his face. His gaze is piercing, his voice like warm honey. The performance is hypnotic and it is impossible to look away. The complete immersion into the role should be recognised and celebrated.
I have been a fan of Audrey Brisson for some time. I adored her animated and wide-eyed performance as Gesolmina in La Strada and was very excited to see her as Amélie. If ever there was a performer to take on Audrey Tatou's beautiful performance in the 2001 film, it was Brisson.
In many ways, she excelled Tatou; she was so charming, quirky and warm that her performance just made you smile. I didn't catch the show at the Watermill Theatre, but I did see it at the New Wimbledon Theatre before it transferred to The Other Palace and her performance just seemed to get stronger. There was a brilliantly talented cast in this production, with great direction and engaging songs, but it was Brisson who really carried the magical whimsy of the whole show. Bravo!
Constance Drugeot: One of my favourites from this year is the new jukebox musical & Juliet. When I witnessed it for the first time, I was blown away. By absolutely everything: the story, the characters, the performances, the music, the staging, the choreography, the designs... It's a wonderful, hilarious and thrilling night out!
Featuring hit songs like "I Want It That Way", "I Kissed a Girl" and "It's My Life", & Juliet brings to the stage an important story about taking control of your life, being confident and embracing who you are, all the while focusing on female empowerment and LGBTQ+ characters. And, with puns and witty comments, the writing is simply brilliant.
& Juliet was nominated for nine Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, Best Actress for Miriam-Teak Lee, Best Theatre Choreographer for Jennifer Weber, and Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro for Original Score or New Orchestrations. Having seen the show several times over the past few months, I have witnessed not only great performances from the cast but also incredible energy and willpower from the entire team to make sure that the 'show goes on' despite everything. Let's hope we see it back in action soon.
Marianka Swain: Like my colleagues, I found & Juliet a joyful surprise, and it would have been fascinating seeing it up against the tonally very different - though likewise contemporary in outlook - Dear Evan Hansen. I also loved getting to revisit my childhood fave Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but my most memorable outing of this bunch was Jamie Lloyd's exciting reinvention of Evita at Regent's Park Open Air - the theatre fast becoming the new powerhouse for eye-opening musical revivals.
On the plays side, two of my favourite outings of the year were both at the Old Vic. Matthew Warchus also reinvented a classic with his glorious take on Noël Coward's Present Laughter - featuring Andrew "Hot Priest" Scott at the top of his game, plus indelible turns from Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson, all nominated. The NT Live screening was my Christmas outing with theatre pals, and a very merry one indeed.
Secondly, the Old Vic premiered Lucy Prebble's A Very Expensive Poison. Combining horror, espionage thriller, love story and satire, with dazzlingly theatrical framing, it absolutely felt like the play for the present moment - and still does, really, capturing our current emotional state of fear, 'fake news' confusion, and hysteria-tinged dark humour at the sheer absurdity of it all.
Though I also found Robert Icke's The Doctor hugely effective, cheered for the hard-fought female empowerment of Emilia (oddly consigned to Best Entertainment or Comedy), and was moved by the powerful climax of Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt, Prebble's Poison would absolutely have been my Best Play pick. Still, now that we're living out the dystopia in some kind of immersive-theatre-overload, perhaps that's a more powerful validation than any award...