On Tuesday lunchtime, the announcement of this year’s Olivier nominations set the ball rolling inexorably towards the industry’s showpiece night next month.
But the feeling is the awards have played it safe in 2020. It’s not just that the nominations don’t feel particularly daring: many seem backward-looking, and some are even the same as previous years.
There is no doubting that the return of Mary Poppins to the West End has been welcomed by audiences in their droves. And critics have hailed Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear’s choreography as a standout part of the show.
It is so great that it already won the pair an Olivier award in 2005, so it seems odd that previously rewarded work is in the running again. Bob Crowley, who didn’t win when he was nominated for the Mary Poppins set design, gets another crack. Yet Tom Scutt’s extraordinary set for A Very Expensive Poison, which debuted last year, misses out.
Fleabag is not a new name to the Olivier Awards either. It was nominated in 2014 – for outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre, losing to Handbagged – but given the life it has since taken on, the Oliviers didn’t want to miss out.
Fleabag shows the way for Baby Reindeer, too. This year, Richard Gadd’s work has been nominated for outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre for its run at the Bush, but if he misses out, he’ll be eligible in the best comedy play category next year after his West End run at the Ambassadors in April.
These are all good shows that deserve recognition, but many of them have already had it. It’s not particularly interesting for commentators to gripe about shows they feel should have been recognised. However, it seems like a bad year for the subsidised sector, when its extraordinary, strong work such as Downstate, The Hunt, Teenage Dick, Fairview, Small Island and [Blank] failed to get a look in. This is the industry’s shop window, yet it feels like its biggest night will be missing some of the most exciting, risky and diverse shows of 2020.
A YouGov poll last month found that few people in this country are interested in who wins arts awards. For example, only 27% of respondents were very or fairly interested in the Oscars, with 71% not very or not at all interested. Even fewer cared about the BAFTAs or the Booker Prize.
YouGov didn’t actually ask about the Oliviers, but this year’s nominations seem unlikely to set the world ablaze.
Nick Clark is features editor of The Stage