As I’m writing this, the announcements are being made for this year’s Laurence Olivier Awards (by the time I hit publish, they will bepublic knowledge). Following on from the WhatsOnStage Awards a couple of weeks ago, it will be interesting to see the differences that the two awards ceremonies bring. With the WOS awards deriving from public votes, whereas the Oliviers are mostly decided by panel votes, the outcomes are sure to take a different turn. But which matter more, in the end?
The WOS awards brought some deserved winners, no doubt. The cast of A Chorus Line (who sadly missed out on last year’s Olivier for the Best Musical Revival to Sweeney Todd) more than merited their award for Best Ensemble, and Rupert Grint’s turn in Mojo made him an appropriate winner for the Best Newcomer, as he proved his stage mettle in the role of Sweets. Yet Daniel Mays surely deserved a nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the same production, in his fantastic portrayal of Potts; somewhat predictably, the public vote went to household name and TV favourite David Walliams. Elsewhere, winner of the Best New Play was the hugely successful The Audience: an enjoyable show, but one that didn’t receive the same outstanding critical acclaim as Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, widely lauded as “surely the best new play we’ll see this year” (Michael Billington, The Guardian). I didn’t even manage to get a ticket for its run at either the Almeida or Harold Pinter Theatre, but I’d still like to see it walk off with an Olivier when they’re announced on 13 April. The list goes on, as the star names raked in the awards at the ceremoney on 23 February, often by a sizeable margin of votes.
Does all this matter? The West End — and Britain’s huge expanse of Off West End, Fringe and regional theatre beyond — survives only if audiences are happy to fork out for a ticket. In some cases, they fork out a hell of a lot. There’s no denying that a star casting or two brings in the public in droves, and if more people see Richard II because of David Tennant, or Henry V because of Jude Law, or Old Times because of Rufus Sewell — well, that’s brilliant.
The question is, are the shows with the biggest stars, the biggest publicity and the biggest names on the posters the most deserving of awards? Should we reward the shows and the actors that bring in the full houses, or that achieve the highest artistic standards. And how and who should judge these standards anyway? After all, it’s not always the expert panels that produce the ‘right’ results, if the fiasco of the last Evening Standard awards is anything to go by. Here again, there were accusations that Helen Mirren, as a star turn, would be a more ‘popular’ winner.
Of course, there are some star names who deliver the finest performances you’ll find. Ben Whishaw never disappoints, David Suchet in All My Sons is still one of the most moving performances I’ve seen, and Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are legends for a reason. But it’s not always the case: David Walliams’ portrayal of Bottom attracted some praise, but also comments such as “his smarmy, supercilious demeanour that repels delighted mirth” (Charles Spencer, The Telegraph) and “stays well within the borders of Little Britain” (Paul Taylor, The Independent). Similarly, Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night was delightful but predictable, and quite frankly the less said about Kelly Osborne’s performance in Chicago, the better.
Am I just being cynical and snobbish about celebrities in the theatre? Perhaps. It’s no bad thing that there’s a mix of different awards around to cover all aspects of the theatre industry — after all that’s what it is, an industry. But it’s important that those shows that don’t have the household names or the marketing budget of A Book of Mormon get the recognition they deserve for their achievements; in turn, if a show gets the kind of attention that David Tennant’s Hamlet got, for example, we can draw a wider audience of theatregoers into this kind of work.
The Oliviers have probably got it as right as can be, with an ‘Audience Award’ by public vote, and judging panels consisting of professionals and members of the public who have gone through a solid application process. So, let’s see if it’s star power or smaller-scale talent that wins the day on 13 April…