Olivier Awards 2016: Hits and Misses
As expected, the 40th anniversary Olivier Awards showered trophies on the sensational Gypsy. Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver's performances and Mark Henderson's lighting were recognised, and the production took Best Musical Revival. But there were surprises elsewhere, with starry shows like Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet going home empty-handed, Nicole Kidman losing out in the Best Actress race, and an underdog win for Pat Kinevane and Fishamble's Silent at Soho Theatre - all welcome given concerns that changes to the Oliviers voting process might favour long-running West End shows and/or A-listers. Here are some of the night's major hits and misses.
Great performances win out
Unlike the Evening Standard Awards' celeb-fest, big names did not triumph at the expense of less well known but superior performances, and two of the best speeches of the night came from Kenneth Cranham (Best Actor for Florian Zeller's devastating The Father) and Denise Gough (Best Actress for her searing turn in Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things). Cranham, who triumphed over Benedict Cumberbatch, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Adrian Lester, gave emotional thanks to his supporters, said the audience "is like an extra character", and reminded Christopher Hampton of an owed fiver, while Denise Gough - already a tireless campaigner for gender equality in theatre - pointed out the lack of racial diversity in her category, sharing the prize with Noma Dumezweni, Marianne Jean Baptiste and Sharon D Clarke. It was a courageous, selfless and vital use of the platform she'd been given.
Vindication for the National
Rufus Norris's inaugural season has provoked ire from some quarters, and several productions have divided critics and audiences, but the National won out last night with four awards on the plays side - more than any other venue. People, Places & Things picked up Best Actress and Sound Design (for Tom Gibbons' excellent work), Mark Gatiss took Best Supporting Actor for Three Days in the Country, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom won Best Revival. Norris may not have a spotless record, but the risk-taking does seem to be paying off. The Royal Court also bounced back with two wins for Martin McDonagh's Hangmen, but it was a lean year for the Young Vic, which dominated in 2015, and other shutout venues like the Donmar and the Old Vic.
Judi sets a record - and loses a bet
Dame Judi Dench won a record eighth Olivier (seventh competitive award) for her supporting performance in The Winter's Tale, part of Kenneth Branagh's resident season at the Garrick. The 81-year-old actress wryly noted in her speech that winning meant she'd lost a bet with her grandson - though few others would ever bet against her. There's more Shakespeare to come, as she's currently filming Richard III with Benedict Cumberbatch for the BBC's Hollow Crown series.
In the Heights shows small is mighty
Hamilton superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda could hardly be described as an underdog, but the British production of In the Heights began at Southwark Playhouse and is now at King's Cross Theatre - both minute spaces compared with its West End juggernaut competitors. But it held its own, with Drew McOnie's propulsive choreography, David Bedella's passionate performance and Miranda's dynamic score helping it equal Kinky Boots in trophies. Of course, the rightly lauded Gypsy began at Chichester Festival Theatre, which shows the importance of nurturing work in smaller, creative spaces. Bath Theatre Royal is also having a good run, with frequent London transfers from its Ustinov Studio - one of which, The Father, picked up an award. Mrs Henderson Presents wasn't so lucky, but at least won a West End transfer and a handful of nominations.
Up the women
Jessica Swale, who picked up Best Comedy for Nell Gwynn, paid tribute to her "three lady producers", and Beverley Knight, presenting Best Actress in a Musical, noted the scope and depth of female roles in that category. There's obviously a long way to go for true equality - a report in The Stage last week revealed a £29,000 gender gap in executive pay at subsidised theatres - but we've seen some positive action, such as the Denise Gough-backed 50:50 campaign. Her performance in People, Places & Things is itself a compelling argument for giving actresses the chance to show the full range of their talents, as are the exceptional performances from the women of colour she cited in her speech. More equality in production and administration will only strengthen that aim.
Bassey is our religion
The winning Kinky Boots team geeked out adorably over presenter Dame Shirley Bassey - quite rightly. Yes, the legend seemed a tad confused over where she was, what time it was, and whether or not we were expecting an imminent "Gold-FINGA", but no matter. She is a goddess, and was recognised as such. Honourable mention to pink-haired Cyndi Lauper and her colour-themed song choices.
Michael Ball falls flat
Oof. It was telling that most of the cuts to the audience in the ITV broadcast following Ball's Bruce Forsyth-esque gags showed stony-faced or bored thesps - clearly, those genuinely enjoying his shtick were few and far between. The frequent costume changes had a panto quality (and were downright surreal for radio listeners), and relentless quips about jobs he hadn't landed took on a desperate quality. He was best used in the musicals medley and duetting with Cyndi Lauper - not least because we all experienced the relief of him finally booking a gig. Being upstaged by the dog from Nell Gwynn was perhaps the low point.
British musicals are overlooked
The Americans dominated: Gypsy took four awards, and In the Heights and Kinky Boots three each, while homegrown Bend It Like Beckham and Mrs Henderson Presents both came away empty-handed. Bend It's performance wasn't shown in the broadcast highlights either, as it closed last month and ITV cut the shows that aren't currently running/available to book. It may yet have a touring life, but original British musicals are still struggling to gain a foothold among the American imports and endless jukebox musicals. Perhaps Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin's upcoming Groundhog Day can turn the tide.
The ENO chorus debate hots up
The beleaguered English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra won Achievement in Opera for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Queen of Spades. In his acceptance speech on their behalf, assistant conductor Martin Fitzpatrick called them a "vital lifeblood" and said "it's imperative we create an environment in which they're cherished and supported" - deeply ironic, given that ENO's musical director Mark Wigglesworth has just resigned in protest at the company's controversial treatment of its chorus. The Oliviers' recognition of the chorus's value could be read as a rebuke to the company, and will certainly reignite the debate.
Plays lose out
Though the ceremony was once again musicals-dominated, with myriad performances, it did at least honour plays with a look back at some of the defining dramas from the past 40 years and extracts from the Best New Play entrants. Not so ITV, which cut both from its highlights broadcast. The ceremony is shown in full on ITV3 tonight, but the highlights are a vital opportunity to showcase British theatre and sell it to a wider audience. Plays missed out.
Could have been a contender
A shame not to see more love for the Almeida's revelatory Oresteia, which picked up just one award. Director Robert Icke made sure to thank the producers who took "the least commercial show" into the West End. His superb Uncle Vanya, also at the Almeida, was completely ignored, as was Tom Morton-Smith's Oppenheimer, a brave RSC transfer to the Vaudeville, and other National hits like Jane Eyre and Husbands & Sons. It was a bad night for producer Sonia Friedman, with just one win from 20 nominations, though the smash hit in waiting that is the upcoming Harry Potter play is some consolation. Finally, Denise Gough's speech called attention to the fact that a slight smugness from London theatreland about our diversity in relation to #OscarsSoWhite is premature, with many BAME artists still missing out on both work and recognition.
Yes, it's the 40th anniversary Oliviers, but we did wind up with montage, medley and nostalgia trip overload. Rory Kinnear's Shakespeare segment was worth it just for the Quentin Letts burn, but it did seem odd to frame the Bard in terms of his winning Oliviers streak - and the Jack Savoretti performance of Sonnet 18, though introduced in remembrance of the late, great Alan Rickman, took up time that could have been spent showcasing a new piece of writing or innovative theatre production. This year tipped the scales too far in favour of our heritage, rather than looking to the future.
Pictures courtesy of the Olivier Awards