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Raising more questions about the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

This time last year I wondered aloud about the results [1] of that year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards. It seemed to me that the process – which produced a longlist of potential nominees which was then whittled down to a shortlist from which the winners were selected – somehow favoured victors who were capable of grabbing headlines.

A month later, I wrote about how three of the judges had publicly resigned [2], after it turned out that a dead heat had been produced in at least one category [3], and one of the judges – the Standard’s own critic Henry Hitchings – had revised his vote, an act that saw Dame Helen Mirren overtake the others in her category.

This year the Evening Standard awards chose not to publish a longlist at all, so we have no way of knowing what figured in the discussions of this year’s judges, but once again a surfeit of star names dominated both the nominations and winners lists.

Star actors, of course, deliver star performances. It may not be too surprising when they are nominated, or go on to win. And I don’t want in any way to underestimate the achievements of either Tom Hiddleston for his Donmar Coriolanus or Gillian Anderson for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. (Both were seen in strictly limited runs to relatively small theatre audiences, but both were seen more widely in NT Live screenings). They are worthy winners.

But it is slightly baffling when a set of theatre awards hands out a prize to a pop star for her comeback concert appearances. Kate Bush received the editor’s award for her show Before the Dawn, cited as “a new high in music performance”. I didn’t see it so I can’t say if that’s true – but is the Standard now expanding its awards reach into other genres?

A Facebook friend posted, “For me, Before the Dawn was the best theatrical experience I have ever had.”

Well, now I wish I’d seen it myself. Perhaps theatre critics need to get away from the West End and head to concert venues like Hammersmith Apollo, too. I looked up the reviews and found that one actually did: Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski eloquently declared, “Before the Dawn is Kate Bush, being Kate Bush – and she is fucking tremendous.” [4]

But it’s also odd that having lost out in the best musical category it had been nominated for, the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim-penned Here Lies Love didn’t go home empty-handed but was awarded a Beyond Theatre special award, for “pushing the boundaries of the musical”. Ditto, having failed to secure a best director award for Skylight, Stephen Daldry’s production went home instead with a suddenly instituted best revival special award.

As someone commented on my Twitter feed, “Are they making it up as the night goes along?!!”

It’s my opinion that these awards are seriously diluting their own integrity by throwing around additional awards so freely. And the most ludicrous of all has to be the Lebedev award to Tom Stoppard as greatest living playwright. The declaration is only a matter of opinion, but it comes in a year when Stoppard hasn’t actually produced a new play (and indeed hasn’t produced one since 2006). Could they not have waited until next year, when he’ll actually have had a new play staged at the National?

But bravo, at least, to the recognition of the previously unknown Laura Jane Matthewson, whom I previously acknowledged here [5]. I’ve pointed this out before as well, but it’s interesting that the Evening Standard’s own reviewer was of a rather different opinion [6].

Read more columns from Mark Shenton [7]

The Stage Awards 2015 [8]