I absolutely, unequivocally love the theatre awards season, which gets underway properly with the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards – on Sunday November 13 – and builds through The Stage Awards, the Critics’ Circle Awards and the WhatsOnStage Awards towards the mighty Oliviers in April.
My enthusiasm may conceivably come as a surprise to anybody who follows me, or more likely my work account (@timeouttheatre), on Twitter, given that probably at least a third of everything I’ve ever tweeted is grumbling about theatre awards ceremonies. The Standard awards, in particular, are a source for almost endless eye-rolling, given they seem to have essentially been transformed into a sort of overflow car park for newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev’s ego. A wearyingly high proportion of the awards go to the most famous people nominated, and other famous people seem to simply get special awards invented for them, with the main objective seemingly being to have a lovely photo taken with Lebedev for the next day’s newspaper. And it’s hard not to groan at some of the winners of the WhatsOnStage Awards, which in the interests of egalitarianism allows – nay, encourages – the general public to vote in categories in which they’ve seen none of the work, meaning, again, famous people inevitably romp home (there is probably a metaphor for Brexit in there if you can be arsed).
Here’s the dirty little secret, though: it’s actually quite nice to grumble about a big eff-off theatre awards ceremony. I was a teenager during the brief 1990s heyday of the Brit Awards, when a national music ceremony briefly became appointment viewing. Admittedly a lot of that was to do with Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson the one time. But still: it was passionate, it was tribal, and if in retrospect it seems reasonably obvious that the winners were just whoever had sold the most records in the last year (Blur swept the board in 1995; Oasis in 1996), it didn’t matter too much, as most of the bands nominated were pretty good and the awards just made the cultural conversation that much more interesting. My mum and dad did not listen to Blur, but they did watch the Brits, and there was a certain thrill of ‘my’ world crossing over into theirs.
It is for these exact same reasons that I find it hard to really begrudge Lebedev his A-list-tastic ceremony. Yes, the awards were more credible when the voting panel of critics wasn’t just ‘advisory’ and the ceremony simply consisted of everybody going to dinner or something. Yes, the rest of this article could just be a long, angry list of silly decisions the awards have made in the last few years, from the great Helen Mirren scandal of 2013 to last year’s sanity-trolling decision to give Nicole Kidman an award over Denise Gough. And yes, it’s best not to look at the next-day coverage in the Standard if you’re feeling at all queasy.
But this is exactly what’s brilliant about it: a multimillionaire has ploughed a decent chunk of his money into a massive, gaudy celebration of theatre and then uses his hugely successful newspaper to make people read about it all the day after. Theatre, as a rule, is something that happens in sealed rooms to self-selecting audiences. Financially and culturally, theatre is one of the great entertainment industries in this country, and yet it too often gets sidelined in people’s eyes as an obscure, elitist preserve, in part because it doesn’t have the wider reach of cinema, music or sport.
It’s an oft-cited statistic that, on an annual basis, more people in the UK attend the theatre than the Premier League. But the Premier League is almost inescapable if you read a paper, watch telly or listen to the radio. By contrast, theatre is extremely easy to ignore if you’re not actively attempting to engage with it. It’s genuinely a thrill when it busts out of that and becomes a bona fide talking point, and I would much rather we were arguing about why an awards ceremony is ‘wrong’ than not be discussing it at all. For all the elitism of the ES ceremony itself, in throwing a big, conspicuous party to celebrate theatre, Lebedev hauls it down from the ivory tower, for just a little while.
Likewise, the WOS awards: does it matter if the public might vote for the ‘wrong’ winners? We’ve got other awards to be ‘right’; WOS is about throwing a massive, raucous party that regular folk can buy a ticket to and that gets a mention in the next day’s celebrity gossip pages, precisely because of the famous people that have turned up.
And as for the grand old Oliviers: nobody can really pretend that the ITV highlights coverage is ‘good’ in the classic sense, or remotely comparable to that which the Tonys receives. But screw it, at least a theatre award ceremony is deemed to be of sufficient note to shove on the telly in this country, in no matter how bowdlerised a fashion.
Look: in a purely prosaic sense, most ceremonies are a bit daft. It’s a bunch of people of often questionable qualifications – if you don’t know who votes for, say, the Golden Globes, look it up and be bemused – clubbing together to give a stranger a statue they didn’t ask for.
But that’s showbiz, and theatre is ultimately part of the entertainment industry. Certainly the bits of it that aspire to a mass audience are. We can all take ourselves very seriously.
But why shouldn’t we have a slice of that old-fashioned stardust? Why shouldn’t we vie with the BAFTAs and the Oscars of this world? So long as people don’t start making theatre with awards season in mind – which maybe happens on Broadway, but I think we’re a long way off that in Britain – then it’s basically all just a bit of fun. But fun that serves a purpose of giving theatre a public profile. I wouldn’t miss moaning about it for the world.