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Tim Bano: Women lead the charge for this year’s Oliviers – on and off stage

Patti LuPone and Rosalie Craig are both nominated for their performances in Company, as is director Marianne Elliott. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Without a nomination-sucking behemoth like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or Hamilton to dominate, it’s the first time that the Oliviers have been properly up for grabs for a few years.

What makes the 2019 nominations particularly thrilling is that women – and female-led productions – are at the forefront of the nominations. Many shows have been recognised that are about women, written by women, directed by women, with women in lead roles – and, in some cases, all of the above.

Leading the charge with nine nominations is Marianne Elliott’s sublime, gender-swapped version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, with Rosalie Craig in the lead role of Bobbie. There are three nods apiece for Tina, Fun Home and Caroline, Or Change, a trio of fantastic musicals – still a ridiculously male-dominated genre – written by women.

Rebecca Frecknall’s beautifully atmospheric revival of the lesser-known Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke receives five nominations, including for the director herself and the electric Patsy Ferran in the lead role.

On top of that, the stupendously successful Six the Musical also has five nods, including a joint nomination for the six cast members who play the wives of Henry VIII. But I do wonder whether joint nominations should be made for all shows or none at all. It seems a shame to single out actors from the large ensembles of Come from Away and The Inheritance, but not for Six or The Lehman Trilogy, whose three stars are jointly nominated for best actor in a play.

There’s even been a sea change off stage with nominations for women in non-gender-specific categories totalling 12, compared with 14 for men. Two years ago, there were only four nominations for women in the equivalent categories and 21 for men.

The nominations for the likes of Ian McKellen’s King Lear or Bartlett Sher’s lavish revival of The King and I or Jonathan Church’s The Price with David Suchet feel somewhat old-fashioned this year. It’s always helpful to have the gravitational pull of stars such as McKellen and Suchet for these glitzy awards dos, but in these nominations they are the exception and not the norm.

And while it’s no surprise to see household names among the nominees – Vanessa Redgrave nominated for best actress in a supporting role for The Inheritance, for example – this year those theatre veterans sit in categories alongside some dazzling new talent.

In the best director category, there are two Hollywood directors in Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, as well as Marianne Elliott, maybe the most important theatre director in the country at the moment. Yet also nominated is Frecknall, right near the beginning of her career. I’m not sure she’ll win – Elliott’s got that in the bag, surely – but she should definitely be a close second.

Then look at best actor in a supporting role: Malcolm Sinclair and Adrian Lukis have been around for years, but with them stands Chris Walley for his performance in The Lieutenant of Inishmore – his professional stage debut.

Naturally there are omissions. No cast member is nominated from Fun Home except Zubin Varla: what happened to Eleanor Kane, Kaisa Hammarlund and Jenna Russell? I’d throw every award going at that show. And there’s the weirdness of the best comedy category – is theatre really that humourless?

But there are glimmers that theatre is waking up to the world, especially when you add in the nods to Arinzé Kene’s Misty and Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night.

Finally, if Monica Dolan doesn’t win for her performance in All About Eve, I will fashion an Olivier for her myself and crash the Royal Albert Hall stage on April 7.

Tim Bano is joint lead critic of The Stage. Read more of his reviews and features at thestage.co.uk/author/tim-bano

Olivier Awards 2019: nominations in numbers

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