Not that you could tell it from the ITV highlights, but the 37th Laurence Olivier Awards were dominated by two things: public funding and the looming spectre of its removal.
From Society of London Theatre president Mark Rubinstein’s opening speech to the seven-time success of the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the words on everyone’s lips were ‘government investment’.
Presenter Hugh Bonneville talked of the “economic impact” that last year’s big winner Matilda (produced by the state-funded Royal Shakespeare Company) was having in both the West End and on Broadway, Curious Incident director Marianne Elliott described the show as a “testament to subsidised theatre” and the risk-taking the National encouraged; while outgoing Royal Court supremo Dominic Cooke used his award acceptance speech as an opportunity to thank Arts Council England for its support.
All this was somewhat ironic given that this was meant to be the year that a change in the judging process behind the Oliviers was going to shift the spotlight onto the commercial sector.
Instead, such had been the focus on subsidy that by the time Kenny Wax, producer of one of the evening’s few 100% commercial winners, Top Hat, came to the stage to pick up best new musical, he began by telling the audience that he wasn’t going to apologise for the fact that the show was commercial – a remark which doubtless raised a few wry smiles in the room.
Another irony of the evening was that the lady to whom all this talk was directed, culture secretary Maria Miller, wasn’t in fact in attendance at the Royal Opera House to watch the fruits of government subsidy being celebrated.
Perhaps she was listening to the live coverage on public service radio.
If she was, she would have found that while all the talk was drawn from the world of subsidy, most of the noise came from commercial players.
Bookended by a cracking rendition of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend by presenter Sheridan Smith and a performance from the company of the new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the evening’s entertainment was firmly rooted in the world of the commercial musical.
In fact, of the evening’s 15 performances, the only ones with links to the subsidised sector were Tim Minchin’s number from Matilda and James Bourne performing from his musical Loserville, which started life at Youth Music Theatre UK and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Other highlights on the night included Heather Headley belting out a rendition of I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard, which drew a standing ovation from the audience, and Lee Evans raising a few laughs with an onstage routine in which he ate a (fake) Oliviers statuette. Elsewhere, Idina Menzel and Matthew Morrison offered a sprinkling of Broadway glitz – with Morrison a shining example of the kind of triple threat performer that Broadway specialises in.
Despite the odd slip and technical blip, the evening was well orchestrated and marshalled expertly by the new presenting team of Sheridan and Bonneville, stepping in for Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, who, as it turned out, couldn’t present awards this year because they were too busy winning them.
As with most awards ceremonies, it dragged a little towards the end and there are still a few issues to address – the over-reliance on big American names and a too great focus on musicals at the expense of plays – but, on the whole, the 2013 event represented another step forward for the Oliviers and its mission to better market the wonders of London theatre to the world.