The annual Laurence Olivier Awards are supposedly the jewel in the crown of the theatrical year, when the industry comes together to put itself on its own back, celebrate its achievements and provide a shop window to some of the shiny goods on display (namely its musicals), with extracts from the ceremony shown in a delayed highlights package later the same evening.
But this year it saw the viewership of its television special plummet from last year's 1m viewers to just 600,000, a careless drop that could jeopardise its hard-won television future (for many years, it disappeared from the TV schedules entirely, and this could happen again). Meanwhile, though, it increased its reach through social media channels like Facebook Live (which offered a red carpet arrivals special), and a live audio broadcast on Magic FM. Maybe it is simply looking for love in the wrong places: awards shows don't necessarily make good television, and it might be best to offer it in full via outlets where fans can actually watch and participate in real time.
The awards themselves, for once, raised few eyebrows: many of the awards were won by the same shows and people who had already been honoured in January's Critics Circle Theatre Awards, which are not subject to industry lobbying and vested interests like the Oliviers are, with Hamilton and The Ferryman again respectively named Best New Musical and Best Play, and each winning further awards in other major categories, too. Similarly, Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston again won the Best Actor award for his appearance in Network at the National, a theatre that also saw its productions of Follies and Angels in America (the latter now on Broadway) named Best Musical Revival and Best Revival.
It was good, too, to see the Old Vic's The Girl from the North Country (which subsequently transferred to the West End's Noel Coward) take two awards for best actress in a musical and best supporting actress in a musical, though one show's win means, of course, another's loss -- and it was disappointing to see Everybody's Talking About Jamie, another original British musical, go away empty-handed.
But the biggest controversy occurred over something that should have been entirely uncontroversial: the annual In Memorium section, in which those we have lost in the last year are remembered. In a bout of unforgivable amnesia, the Oliviers somehow forgot to include Sir Peter Hall, one of the all-time legendary figures of the British theatre, who had founded the RSC and succeeded Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre, too. It also neglected to mention the passing of veteran actor Roy Dotrice and the dancer Scott Ambler.
But beyond those rightly recognised and those forgotten, there's a bigger question as to what purpose an awards ceremony actually serves -- and if it's the best advertisement for what is being celebrated. As Sarah Crompton has remarked on Whatsonstage, "The thing about theatre is that it's a grubby, collaborative art, made by people in backrooms and tatty halls. Its working face is infinitely more inclusive and exciting than its dressed-up one; it is at its best when it is unbuttoned rather than poshed-up. Somehow its major awards ceremony needs to show that – and to show it to the viewing public. A succession of people in nice frocks and black tie saying thank you is all very well, but it isn't the best advertisement for the thrilling, responsive, committed thing that keeps some of us going out night after night to see what it has to say."
Congratulations to all the nominees and winners, UK theatre is still at the top of its game.