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Mark Shenton: Does the Oliviers’ judging process need a shake-up?

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Complete objectivity is, of course, impossible to attain in any act of critical judgement, from reviews to awards. One person’s We Will Rock You is another person’s Stephen Sondheim (and, yes, both have received Olivier Awards in their time).

As with the Tony Awards, which the Oliviers are seeking to emulate, the frame of reference depends on who is invited to the party, in terms of which theatres are eligible. The Society of London Theatre, which administers the awards, operates a two-tier membership system of full and affiliate members. The latter group is shunted into a single category, while full members can be nominated in 21 categories. There are also four opera and dance categories.

It’s hardly a level playing field, but at least the rules are clear: SOLT rewards only its own.

But who exactly is calling the shots? The Oliviers used to be decided by a separately appointed judging panel. This certainly produced some quirky choices over the years: in 2010, The Mountaintop won best play over Jerusalem and Enron, while Return to the Forbidden Planet was named best musical over Miss Saigon in 1989.

Now, however, there’s simply no rhyme, reason or (more seriously) accountability to how the system works: all SOLT members participate in the selection of nominees and the ultimate results.

But there is also no mechanism, as there is with the Tonys, which operates a separate nominating committee and voting membership, to ensure that anyone casting a vote actually gets to see the shows they are voting for.

On Broadway, shows that want to be considered for Tonys have to make free tickets available to the nominating committee (around 25-30 members) as well as the 800 or so voters.

That’s a significant cost, of course, against tickets that could actually be sold. This year it has meant that the limited run of Sunday in the Park With George has chosen not to participate in the Tony race to save giving those tickets away. But this means depriving its stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford of what would be almost certain nominations, and possible wins.

In London, some producers invite other SOLT members to view their shows, but not all. I recently sat next to a SOLT producer at the National who told me they had been invited to buy a top-price ticket to be there.

Of course the National, as a publicly subsidised theatre that depends on its box office earnings to balance its books, can’t be giving away hundreds of tickets on the chance of an award for a show that may have long closed by the time the awards themselves arrive. But it is striking that there has been no nomination in any category for last year’s The Deep Blue Sea or its star Helen McCrory, whose performance the Observer’s Susannah Clapp dubbed “indelible”.

This year, the National secured seven Olivier nominations, the same as last year, against 17 in 2011, 15 in 2012, 14 in 2013 and nine in 2014. This was, however, an improvement on 2015, when it received just three nominations (for Here Lies Love).

Of course, not every year can produce a show such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which received eight nominations alone in 2013, and has been running in the West End ever since), but the National’s star has certainly fallen in Olivier terms and this may be more to do with the judging process than what is on the stage.

Meanwhile, the Almeida, which in 2014 was nominated for 10 awards, and won eight of them (five for Chimerica, three for Ghosts) has failed to secure a single nomination this year, despite high-profile, acclaimed shows such as Ralph Fiennes’ Richard III and Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart.

Similarly, the Royal Court is completely unrepresented this year, while the Donmar has just two nominations. In 2011, both venues received nine nominations. Also entirely empty-handed is the Royal Shakespeare Company. The producing theatre that otherwise features most strongly is David Lan’s Young Vic, with Yerma picking up three nominations.

Instead, the headline news is that Sonia Friedman, who this year topped The Stage 100 list of Britain’s most influential theatre professionals, confirmed that status with a record 31 nominations across six productions.

Eleven of these – an Olivier record for a single play – are for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and five more are for Dreamgirls. But the rest are for transfers of productions originated elsewhere, sometimes partly under the auspices of Sonia Friedman Productions: two from the Menier Chocolate Factory (Funny Girl and Travesties) and two from Massachusetts’ American Repertory Theater (Nice Fish and The Glass Menagerie).

Indeed, US-originated plays and musicals feature strongly throughout the list. Two of the four best play nominees, The Flick and One Night in Miami, hail from New York’s Playwrights Horizons (in the same production with most of the same cast) and LA respectively. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock first premiered on Broadway in 2015 before it came to the West End last year. It has received three nominations, joining two other Lloyd Webber revivals, Sunset Boulevard and Jesus Christ Superstar, which respectively received two and six nominations.

As ever, there are some definite anomalies and absurdities.

James Graham’s This House is nominated for best revival, even though it’s a delayed transfer of the identical production that premiered at the National, while the six leads in The Girls are jointly nominated for best actress in a musical. I loved this show but this is a sheer absurdity. Perhaps the Oliviers need an ensemble award instead, but The Girls’ leads are definitely Joanna Riding and Claire Moore.

There were some surprising omissions: nothing for Harriet Walter, for instance, for her Prospero in The Tempest; Lazarus, one of the year’s most intriguing new musicals, and particularly for its star, Michael C Hall; and Michael Xavier (for Sunset Boulevard, though let’s hope he’s rewarded with a Tony nomination for its current run on Broadway).

Read the nominations in full here

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