The Olivier Awards toasted the winning spirit of theater during the pandemic | Olivier Trophies
IIt started with host Jason Manford joking about the danger of slapping at the awards show, but the theater industry’s Oscars had few bumps or hard edges. Instead, there were lots of warm feelings about the resilience and spirit of dynamism shown through the pandemic shutdowns. A surge of pent-up energy was palpable in the room after a three-year hiatus since the last in-person ceremony, but the awards themselves felt secure in their focus on big, splashy revivals and beloved adapted stories.
Rebecca Frecknall’s darkly reworked juggernaut Cabaret deserved its seven wins, as did Lola Chakrabarti’s Life of Pi for its sensational puppet (it won five). But the habit of finding one or two big winners seemed oddly viewed this year when it could have been the perfect opportunity to spread the love and recognition more widely.
Cabaret’s two big celebrity spins by Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley were charismatic but predictable winners and it’s a shame that strong contenders in less perfectly formed shows went unrecognized, like Arinzé Kene’s kinetic performance in Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical (the show won a gong for its sound design instead).
The winning “new” shows also felt like conceptual revivals: Life of Pi had a lucrative past life as a bestselling book and Hollywood movie. Back to the Future, which won Best New Musical, is based on the hit 1985 film by Robert Zemeckis. Both could be called theater of comfort for their warm, fuzzy familiarity and striking aesthetic. Back to the Future, in particular, seems to be part of a new breed of film adaptations that seem designed to entice a generation of nostalgic 40-50 year olds (Moulin Rouge, which won Best Costume Design , is part of).
It was gratifying to see revivals of more avant-garde plays awarded, from The Normal Heart by the National Theatre, for which Liz Carr won Best Supporting Actress, to Nick Payne’s Constellations, which was boldly reworked by Michael Longhurst to feature four pairs of actors this time around. (including Best Actress winner Sheila Atim). A highlight came in Best Entertainment or Comedy win for Pride and Prejudice *(* sort of). Hit by Covid regulations and then cut short, it was a brave David from a production against Goliath of West End attractions and it failed to garner the audience it deserved. Writer and co-director Isobel McArthur took home the award and reminded us that this witty, karaoke-soaked show began at Glasgow’s Tron. Producer David Pugh took a risk in bringing an old fringe show to a West End grand venue and it turned out to be one of the most original comedies of the year.
There was no equivalent to the Oscar slap in the face, but a metaphorical punch fell into the “best supporting actor” category. The prize was won by the seven actors (not all male) behind the Royal Bengal Tiger, a majestic puppet full of character and drama, in Life of Pi. The puppeteers called it a historic moment that “opens the door to more puppets in central theater roles”, but by that logic, should the puppeteers behind War Horse’s Joey also have earned an acting gong – and what about the talking car in Back to the ‘coming? Shouldn’t a prerequisite for “best actor” be one human heartbeat rather than seven? The victory is, at best, an argument for creating a new breed of puppeteer given the very welcome rise of high-quality puppetry in the West End.