Andrzej Lukowski: Plucky underdogs are left out in the cold by Oliviers judging process

The cast of Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram kenton
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What’s good for the West End is good for the Olivier Awards. And it is almost impossible to conceive that any serious theatregoer could look at the nominations for the 2017 ceremony – a distinctly middling, sometimes random batch of shows propped up by the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – and not conclude that 2018’s list is a vast improvement.

Olivier Awards 2018: the nominations in full

The indestructible Hamilton is there, hoovering up a record 13 nominations. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut actually has some pretty stiff competition, most notably the National Theatre’s superlative Follies. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman has eight nods, and the Almeida’s Hamlet and Ink have given the Islington powerhouse seven. Of the major London subsidised theatres, only the Young Vic has been shut out this year.

It is mostly a good list of nominations. But it reflects a painfully obvious truth: in the main categories, a show would appear to need a West End transfer or to have a major National Theatre run to stand a chance.

Since rule changes opened Oliviers voting up to all Society of London Theatre members, there has been fretting that the awards are now going to more commercial work. But the truth is probably more complicated than that. In 2018, when many highly deserving nominees have made the lists for excellent, often challenging, work you have to look at what’s changed since 2017 and conclude that the answer is obvious: the shows got long West End runs, and SOLT members made it down in numbers.

And you have to look at what hasn’t made it: Carey Mulligan in Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys, Victoria Hamilton in Mike Bartlett’s Albion, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Annie Baker’s John, the Young Vic’s The Jungle. It’s not the end of the world that none of these hugely acclaimed shows didn’t get a nod. The categories they would have been eligible for are not stuffed with weak nominees. But, taken as a whole, it’s fairly easy to spot a trend in their non-nominations: small theatres, short runs.

Is this prejudice on the behalf of SOLT members? I sincerely doubt it, more a truth that there are a large number of them, and that they are simply not seeing a certain type of show in sufficient volume for these productions to stand much of a chance.

Last year, the lack of transfers meant the subsidised work that did get nominated often came across as rather random in categories such as best new play. Step away from the main categories in 2018 and the same applies again: the affiliate nominations are peculiar, and the comedy ones are out-and-out horrifying. Neither could reasonably be said to represent the best of British theatre, or look like the work of a body of nominators going out of the way to check out obscure, limited-run work.

I’m not suggesting that the Oliviers aren’t fit for purpose – as a rule, the eventual winners are difficult to argue with, which is what it’s all about, really. But it’s more starkly obvious than ever this year that a short run in a small theatre will probably leave a show ineligible by default. How to resolve this? I suppose either revert to a system in which SOLT members are disenfranchised and a small panel is responsible for the initial nominations, or acknowledge how the system works and make it a Theatreland-only thing. Neither is ideal, but the current system increasingly feels like an awkward fudge.