Mark Shenton: Hamilton dominates the Olivier Awards 2018, in an evening of few surprises
In the end, there were no major upsets at the 2018 Olivier Awards, presented on April 8 at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Society of London Theatre’s producers and theatre operators (who decide who wins at the Olivier Awards) voted in much the same way as the critics had done earlier in the year. Many of the winners mirrored those at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards in January, including The Ferryman and Hamilton (best new play and best musical respectively). Likewise, Bryan Cranston again won best actor for Network, Sheila Atim was recognised for The Girl from the North Country and designer Vicki Mortimer was celebrated for her costumes in Follies. Another special award was given to David Lan, celebrating his nearly two-decade tenure, just ended, as artistic director of the Young Vic.
In his acceptance speech, Lan remarked: “We wanted to change the world; perhaps we only changed a few streets in SE1, but that we did.”
Lan remade this once temporary-build, breeze-block theatre into something permanent, not just by overseeing a brilliant refurbishment project that has secured the building’s physical future, but also by embracing an internationalist approach to theatremaking that’s more than just about importing Peter Brook from Paris (though he did that, too). Even as he hands the reins over to Kwame Kwei-Armah, the ripples he has left behind are still being felt: Australian director Simon Stone’s radical make-over of Lorca’s Yerma is currently playing at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, and The Jungle, a play about the Calais refugee camp, is West End-bound to the Playhouse in June.
But, if the Young Vic epitomises how theatre can bring people together from many different worlds and cultures to tell stories, the Oliviers reflect the fact that the rest of London theatre mostly seems to be in dialogue only with the world’s other English-speaking capital of theatre: New York.
Hence, we have the ongoing juggernaut of Hamilton. This superb show came into the awards with a record-breaking 13 nominations and translated them into seven wins (four fewer than it won at the 2016 Tonys). These included awards for Giles Terera as Aaron Burr – the role that also won Leslie Odom Jr a Tony – and Michael Jibson as the scene-stealing King George.
Meanwhile, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which is concluding its West End run at the Gielgud next month after transferring from the Royal Court, took home three Oliviers (best play, best director Sam Mendes and best actress Laura Donnelly). That will look good on the posters when it heads to Broadway in October.
Donnelly’s award is particularly sweet, given that her own family history inspired her husband Butterworth to write the play. She also triumphed over better-known competitors in her category, Audra McDonald (a six-times Tony winner), and Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton (both of whom have been Oscar nominees and Olivier winners).
The Ferryman will join Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre production of Angels in America on Broadway. It was named best revival and also saw Denise Gough win an Olivier for best supporting actress. With Oliviers too for Follies (named best musical revival) and Network’s Cranston, the NT was back in the game, after a 2017 that saw it win only a single Olivier for its import of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.
If it was disappointing for the original British musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to go home empty-handed, the Old Vic triumphed, by securing two wins for performers in The Girl from the North Country. Its star Shirley Henderson eclipsed Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee, both from the National’s Follies, to win the best actress in a musical prize and the aforementioned Atim took the nod for best supporting actress in a musical. Following on from last year’s wins for Groundhog Day, this happily demonstrates that Matthew Warchus’ careful nurturing of new musicals at the Old Vic is paying dividends.
The latter producing venue operates without subsidy. Productions originating in the commercial sector to be recognised (Hamilton aside) were the Michael Grandage Company production of James Graham’s Labour of Love (named best new comedy), An American in Paris for its set design, and the Qdos Palladium panto Dick Whittington (best entertainment and family show).
But if the Oliviers were relatively balanced this year between the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, there’s still an imbalance in how the awards themselves are presented.
The plays are dispensed with in the first half, with the musicals coming after the break. Paired with the numerous musical performances, it feels like a tacit admission that the awards are following the money towards the climax and honouring the main economic drivers of the West End. Perhaps this should not be surprising given the televised nature of the awards and the fact they serve as a marketing engine for SOLT’s predominantly West End membership. But it makes them feel ever more like the Tony Awards, whose success and status they are clearly seeking to emulate.
In London we still have many more plays produced across the year than musicals – so perhaps instead of focusing exclusively on glitzy tributes to musicals (and this year’s Oliviers celebrated not just current shows but also anniversary milestones for West Side Story and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), SOLT can in 2019 find a way to run them as a ceremony that truly celebrates the full range of wonderful theatre we are still lucky to have access to in the West End and beyond.