To celebrate London’s West End theatre, dance and opera, Sunday night saw the 40th anniversary of the prestigious Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, presented by Michael Ball. From Best Sound Design to Best Choreography, awards went to every facet of theatre making with performances from the casts’ of Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, In The Heights, Mrs Henderson Presents, Bugsy Malone and Kinky Boots, and an assortment of medley’s from West End stars. 

The revival of Gypsy stole the night with four wins, including awards for both its leading ladies and Best Musical Revival. In the Heights also went home with a handful of Olivier statues with Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Best Choreographer and Outstanding Achievement in Music. Likewise it was a successful night for Kinky Boots, picking up three awards for Best Actor in a Musical, Best Costume Design and the big one, Best New Musical. Meanwhile The Phantom of the Opera, now in its 30th year, performed on the Covent Garden Piazza stage having won the Magic Radio Audience Award as voted for by the general public. It was a tough night for the other musical nominees, with Bend It Like Beckham, Guys and Dolls and Mrs Henderson Presents all leaving empty handed.

“The evening was a huge triumph for women”

With an array of new play openings over the past year, the National Theatre picked up awards for Three Days in the Country, People, Places and Things and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom whilst The Royal Court ultimately won Best New Play with Hangmen. The achievements of opera and dance were also celebrated with Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci winning Best New Opera and Woolf Works winning Best New Dance Production, though these were noticeably shoehorned in at the end of the highlights so not to detract from the heavily musical theatre orientated evening.

The evening was a huge triumph for women, with Dame Judi Dench attaining her record-breaking eighth Olivier and gracefully thanking everyone at the Garrick theatre, setting an unequivocal standard for British stage acting. Another huge female win went to Nell Gwynn for Best New Comedy. The award was accepted by the plays’ writer Jessica Swale who praised the feisty feminist who inspired the piece, as one of the first actresses on the London stage. With a stirring finale sung by a female cast of fifteen past Olivier Award winners, the awards concluded with a cry of feminist victory and a message that women can quite clearly own the stage.

“The Olivier’s celebrated the work of the creative teams and the hundreds of people who work back stage”

However it was clear from the nomination categories that there was still a lack of diversity in the ceremony. Similar to the controversy that the Oscars faced, 90% of nominees were white, with David Bedella and Matt Henry winning their categories and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom representing the only ethnic minority winners of the night. This difference did not go unmentioned, as Denise Gough, winner of the Best Actress Award, dedicated her speech to three BAME female actresses who could have easily have been nominated for the award. With Matt Henry speaking for drag queens and ethnic minority groups alike, it seemed that the Royal Opera House was the perfect stage to address political issues in West End Theatre.

The Olivier’s did not only highlight the work of actors on stage, but celebrated the work of the creative teams and the hundreds of people who work back stage to make every performance happen. Choreographers, costume and lighting designers were able to collect awards, and a number of winners thanked the tireless work of the nameless dressers, musicians and stage crew, whom without there would be no show. However, the only major aspect not to be recognized was that of musical direction.

With exclusive performances and a celebration of achievements in theatre, dance and opera, it’s such a shame that it wasn’t broadcast live for all to enjoy. Whilst the BAFTA’s and the Brit’s gain prime time television slots, the highlights of the ceremony were pushed back to 22:15 on ITV. Why chart music and soap awards are awarded with the nations gaze whilst theatre awards are left with a graveyard slot is anyone’s guess. Let’s hope next year, hosted at the Royal Albert Hall, theatre fans won’t need to wait until midnight to find out who won what.

Alex Jarvis

Image: Bahman Farzad via Flickr

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