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Mark Shenton: Did the right shows win at the Olivier Awards 2016?

Bend It Like Beckham at the Olivier Awards. Photo: Alastair Muir
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Last week, my colleagues and I offered our Olivier Awards predictions for 2016. On Sunday, we had our day of reckoning. I predicted the winners correctly in four out of the eight categories I was assigned, while Natasha Tripney got five out her seven right, a higher batting average. Meanwhile our dance critic Neil Norman called both of his categories right, while our opera critic George Hall got his two wrong.

But it’s not a contest, at least not between critics. The voting system is right when it produces the ‘right’ result, and flawed when you disagree with the outcome.

It was particularly pleasing that the gorgeous Denise Gough won an Olivier after previously being denied the Evening Standard Theatre award in the same category that should definitely have been hers, and making a great speech about the importance of diversity and paying generous tribute to Noma Dumezweni, Sharon D Clarke and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, none of whom had been nominated.

The Oliviers promptly lost a major point on diversity when the ITV1 highlights broadcast went out after the show – the only Olivier-nominated musical to feature a British Asian cast had its extract completely cut from the transmission. It could be argued that the show is no longer running, whereas the others are; but what is the justification for screening the Cyndi Lauper solo pop number, when she had already been represented by her score for Kinky Boots?

Somewhat inevitably, I disagreed with the Olivier choice of that show for best musical (the Critics’ Circle had acknowledged Bend It Like Beckham, my own choice for the category).

But if the right people, for the most part, won the awards, I had more than one industry insider, including the artistic director of a leading London theatre, come up to thank me at the ceremony itself at the Royal Opera House for exposing the flawed process of how the nominations are actually arrived at. This was also confirmed by a two-time former public panel judge I met on the night, and in two emails from other members, who felt their hard work in seeing all of the eligible shows – this year the public panel saw 117 – was ultimately disregarded or overruled in drawing up the final shortlists, which are done by polling the entire membership of the Society of London Theatre, few – if any – of whom would have actually seen the full 117 shows.

Perhaps the answer is to follow the lead of the Tony Awards, in having a specially appointed nominating committee of leading industry figures who are obliged to see all the shows. In New York, if they fail to see any of the eligible shows, they cannot cast a vote in that category. And if they have a personal business interest to any of the eligible shows in a particular year, they have to recuse themselves from the panel that year entirely.

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