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Andrzej Lukowski: Is George Osborne in danger of making the Evening Standard’s theatre awards grown up again?

Nicole Kidman with her award in 2015. Photo: Dave Benett Nicole Kidman with her Evening Standard Theatre award in 2015. Photo: Dave Benett
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George Osborne couldn’t fix the economy – but might the chancellor-turned-newspaperman have successfully repaired the Evening Standard Theatre Awards?

To recap: after elephant-loving Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev and his dad Alexander acquired the Standard, its venerable theatre awards took a turn for the blingy.

The ceremonies got bigger, the guest lists got starrier and the following day’s newspaper was given over to ever-more prominent photo spreads of guests dutifully posing with Lebedev Jnr.

The Evening Standard’s Evgeny Lebedev with the 2015 award winners. Photo: Dave Benett

All well and good, but the winners got starrier, too. Questionably so. You may think I’m wrong to question whether John Malkovich’s preposterous win over John Tiffany and Dominic Cooke in last year’s best director category was evidence of any sort of A-lister bias.

You may think Nicole Kidman’s hysterically wrongheaded victory over Denise Gough in the 2015 best actress category was simply a lapse in judgement.

But there is no denying that Helen Mirren’s triumph in the same category in 2013 has left an indelible blot on the awards’ reputation.

Three of the awards’ judges resigned in protest, believing that their votes should have given Lesley Manville the win. It should be pointed out that the Standard hotly denied this, saying the awards were “conducted properly”, but it’s notable that the panel was subsequently reclassified as ‘advisory’, rather than having the final say.

Now, nobody feels more schadenfreude in the silliness of a theatre awards ceremony than me. But am I wrong to detect some green shoots in 2017?

And if there are, surely they are attributable to the sole change to the advisory panel, with former Standard editor Sarah Sands out and her successor – theatre-loving austerity-merchant Osborne – in?

I think so. Osborne wasn’t exactly what you’d call a beloved politician, but he knew a thing or two about the public eye and about the arts, and there are some smart changes for 2017.

For starters, there’s been no publishing of the awards long-list. This is a really, really good idea, as inevitably one of the more egregious bits of the build-up was the abrupt culling of all the non-famous names after a week.

But second, the short list looks… well it looks unremarkable, in the most literal, reassuring sense.

Women are not hugely represented beyond the female-specific categories, the nominees in the major categories are almost all white, and there’s something vaguely off – if probably well-meaning – at having the brilliant African-American writer Branden Jacob-Jenkins competing for most promising playwright against two novice Brits when his first Off-Broadway play was put on in 2010.

But all-in-all solid. It’s no doubt helped by the fact that there has been a glut of credible hits this year, the way led by Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, the Almeida’s Hamlet and Ink and the National Theatre’s Follies and Angels in America. But trust me: in previous years, they could have found a way to bugger it up.

Before the shortlist was published, I assumed it would be a mess – though I still have hopes for the loopy special awards that tend to be inexplicably bestowed upon random celebrities. Hello David Walliams.

I don’t want to jinx it, but for the first time in half a decade, the Evening Standard is in serious danger of putting on a grown-up theatre awards ceremony again.

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