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Shenton’s Week: The awards that allows critics and theatremakers to bury the hatchet

Best director award winner Dominic Cooke and best designer award winner Vicki Mortimer (for Follies)
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I’m on various awards judging panels, including The Stage Awards, the UK Theatre Awards, the Offies and the recently discontinued Empty Space Peter Brook Awards. All of these work in different ways but come down, eventually, to reaching a consensus decision by committee votes, following often detailed discussion.

In this sort of process each member of the voting panel speaks up passionately for the nominees they want to favour – and its a matter of co-opting your fellow panellists to agree with the strength of your convictions.

I’m proud of results that I have particularly championed, like Manchester’s Hope Mill winning The Stage Award for Fringe Theatre of the year. It’s fast become one of my favourite theatres in the country, and I’m delighted that it has made its mark.

Mark Shenton: Why is Hope Mill taking more risks on musicals than Leicester Curve?

But the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, presented in a ceremony at the Prince of Wales Theatre’s Delfont Room that I hosted in my role as chairman of the drama section, follow a different, even more democratic process. There’s no committee, discussions or horse-trading; every critic votes independently, and can make their own choices from everything they’ve seen.

What’s fascinating is the consensus and trends that emerge. This year, for instance, we saw musicals figuring highly, even in the open categories where the winners could have come from either a play or musical.

There was a history making moment when Dominic Cooke took the best director award for his production of Follies at the National. It was the first time ever that a director of a musical alone has won in the category. Best design went to Vicki Mortimer for the same show;

The joint winners of the most promising newcomer (other than a playwright) award also came from shows in which they sang: Sheila Atim for Girl from the North Country and John McCrea for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Read our interview with John McCrea

They join an impressive roster of previous winners of this talent-spotting category that includes Daniel Kaluuya, who has just been nominated for the best actor Oscar this year for Get Out.

Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards 2018: winners in full

The promise of Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne and nominees Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Garfield as well as Olivier winner Denise Gough was recognised by the Critics’ Circle first.

We also showcased some possible winners of the future. The entertainment included a song from the new British musical Six (recently seen at the Arts Theatre), and another song from Bring It On, written by Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, which will receive its British premiere this summer.

It was also good for the critics, and the people whose work they evaluate, to come together not in a spirit of suspicion and hostility but (mostly) mutual respect.

As Andrew Scott remarked, collecting his award for best Shakespearean performance as the lead in Hamlet at the Almeida and Pinter Theatres, “These guys know what they’re talking about so it’s an honour to get this award, it feels terrific.”

And Victoria Hamilton, winning the best actress award for Albion at the Almeida, said, “This is a special one to win because I know we’re meant not to care what the critics think but fundamentally when you’re a theatre actor you do spend an awful of of your life dependent on what they think. To have a whole circle of them telling you that you’ve done alright is quite nice.”

There’s always someone, though, who breaks ranks and reignites old hostilities. In this case, it was Jez Butterworth, who wasn’t there to accept his best play award for The Ferryman in person but sent his director Sam Mendes with a message that he and his wife Laura Donnelly have recently had a baby.

“I know you’ll want to join me and Laura in welcoming our daughter into the world,” his message ran, “except that guy from the Spectator who right now is thinking, how can I be the only one who can see this baby is massively overrated?”

But the mood was summed up by the brilliant Mike Bartlett, who told me afterwards that it was a bit like the Christmas truce in the trenches of the First World War. For an afternoon at least, both sides put aside their mutual suspicions and celebrated their shared passion for the theatre, whichever side of the footlights they are on.

The supporting role of supporting roles

In the acting categories, the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards only have best actor and best actress. There’s no specification for the size of the role, so in theory a supporting actor could win one. But critic Matt Trueman makes an interesting point in an online column that supporting performances can be just as revelatory as lead ones: in fact, he tells us he cast his own vote for Best Shakespearean performance to Jessica Brown Findlay for her Ophelia in the same production of Hamlet that Andrew Scott won the award for.

He went on to say, “When we talk of great acting, we invariably mean leads. It’s not just that acting awards go to those that get to grips with the biggest, juiciest roles, it’s that we assume the best actors play the best parts. “Want to win this award?” asked critic Henry Hitchings, presenting Scott with his prize, “Play Hamlet”. If you’re too old, try Lear.”

But sometimes its the smaller roles that can count, too. He cites Helen Schlesinger in Albion having a bigger acting task than Critics’ Circle Best Actress winner Victoria Hamilton. “She stalked the garden like a lioness with a thorn in her paw: outwardly majestic, but, deep down, still wounded. In a risky old role, she was riveting. Few actors could have pulled the feat off.”

That is so true. And there are a body of fine supporting actors who provide the backbone to many a play, and cause me to eagerly anticipate any show that they’re in: actors like Hugh Ross and Michael Simkins, Hilton McRae and Paul Chahidi, John Light and Ellitt Levey, Beverley Klein and Emma Fielding, Clare Foster and Kate O’Flynn.

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