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Richard Jordan: Olivier Awards creative and performance nominations left me baffled

Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love. Photo: Johan Persson Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love: would she have been up for an award if best comedy performance hadn't been retired? Photo: Johan Persson
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In recent years, the Oliviers have often felt at the mercy of the broadcasters, appearing grateful that anyone still wants to put them on television. As a result, it’s made them seem unsure of the best direction to take, trying to fit the ceremony around both celebrating the industry and chasing TV ratings.

Olivier Awards 2018: the winners in full

As organisers continue to work out how best to capitalise on the awards’ TV presence, I have frequently felt a lack of clarity surrounding the actual awards themselves, both within the nomination process, and the way that awards have been cut or merged together.

My column about the Olivier Awards’ selection process in 2013 asked: if a production was nominated as best play or musical, should its director not automatically receive inclusion in their respective best director category?

Five years after that column, the lack of some cross-category nominations in 2018’s awards is still puzzling. In this year’s best musical category, the enjoyable Young Frankenstein was nominated. Beyond supporting actor nominations, there was nothing for the director, choreographer, designer, lead actor or lighting designer. Surely these people’s contributions helped achieve its deserved nomination in the first place?

The same question could be asked when a musical’s success comes down to its lead performances. A case in point was An American in Paris. While Christopher Wheeldon’s gorgeous choreography was nominated, there was nothing for its principals Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild, who performed it superbly.

Similarly puzzling was the lack of recognition for several directors in the best play and best revival categories. The imaginative, site-specific production of Witness for the Prosecution received a best revival nod but no recognition in any of the creative or acting categories. As nice as it was to see a non-conventional production from beyond Shaftesbury Avenue nominated, that single nomination in a major production category made it feel (undeservedly) random in selection.

Network, Oslo and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? all received nominations in various categories including best play, revival and acting, but none of the plays’ respective directors – Ivo van Hove, Bartlett Sher and James MacDonald – featured on the nomination sheet.

In the mid-1990s, the organisers decided to merge directorial awards together so the best director award covered both plays and musicals, but it would make more sense to retain two separate categories.

Perhaps the biggest loser in the Olivier Award realignment is best comedy whose linked acting award for best comedy performance was retired in 1995 and remains sorely missed. If it still existed, Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig would certainly have been nominated for Labour of Love, and Julian Clary and Gary Wilmott may well have been recognised. Their performances in Dick Whittington were no less accomplished or skilful in their genre than any of the other best actor nominations.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that they would ever be respected or taken seriously enough to be considered in competition with the ‘more serious’ acting roles. The return of the best comedy performance award would see a far better representation across all productions.

Meanwhile, alongside the relatively new Olivier award for achievement in music (introduced in 2014), should there not also be an award for achievement in lyrics? And for that matter, for book and orchestrations? Achievement in music feels awkwardly positioned in the overall awards and it serves to highlight their arbitrary nature.

What’s most noticeable this year is the nominations are all for works perceived as ‘successful shows’. This is to overlook what may have been a standout performance in a production that scored less successfully with critics or box office. Neil McDermott’s excellent supporting performance as Chief Weasel in the poorly reviewed The Wind in the Willows is one such example. When it comes to voting, these performances can easily be forgotten, though that’s assuming voters actually saw the production.

I was equally sorry not to see Stanley Townsend nominated for his performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. He was overlooked for a standout turn in a production that may not have made the same amount of noise as some of its other West End counterparts.

The Society of London Theatre’s regrouping of its awards, making the voting member-led, has seen a swing back to a greater West End-focus over the subsidised sector. While productions such as Network and Follies could not be ignored, most of the other nominations for the subsidised sector were for productions that had transferred.

There’s no doubt that the Olivier voters will have debated long and hard over the nominations and winners, but would it really matter if the nomination list were extended? The Oliviers are no different from many other awards. The creative and performance nominations of a work should frame the decision to nominate a show in the top category – whether best new production or revival. They would also give the nominations more credibility.

As important as winning those biggest awards is, it would be great if the nominations could give us a bit more clarity along the way.

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