Oliviers are for sharing

But Matilda waltzes off with a record haul of Larrys.

When asked how it felt to hold her very own Olivier award, Eleanor Cox-Worthington (aged 10) said, “very heavy.” She was one of the quartet of tiny actresses in Matilda: The Musical who share the title role of the miracle Miss with a serious Dickens habit and a poltergeist streak. They could have been - but weren’t - precious nightmares of child-star awfulness. They made history at last night’s Oliviers as the youngest ever winners.

Oliviers are for sharing: not only was Best Actress in a Musical split four ways, but Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller divvied up the Best Actor’s award for alternating the roles of Frankenstein and his monster at the National Theatre. The night I saw the show, a primal, supercharged Cumberbatch played the Creature, leaving Lee Miller to do little more than act the stuffed shirt. Out of the production’s epic scale (you could almost smell the foundry and the charnel house in the scientific age of steam and gas) Cumberbatch scored a thrilling, visceral intimacy.

It was quite the record-breaking night for the RSC: Matilda waltzed off with an embarrassment of Larrys (seven altogether), beating the previous record, also set by the RSC, for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s twisted story with a dappled wit and warmth by Dennis Kelly, and set to lyrical, satirical music from Tim Minchin, this fizzing sherbert-dip of a show bagged the award for Best New Musical. The magnificent Bertie Carvel, as Matilda’s frigidly upholstered headmistress Miss Trunchbull, took home Best Actor in a Musical, and Matthew Warchus nabbed Best Director. Peter Darling picked up another award for the show’s crisp choreography, pipping both the rippled smoothness of Andrew Wright’s hommage to 1950’s MGM, Singin in the Rain, and Javier de Frutos’s clean and clever ensemble work in London Road. There were further accolades for Simon Baker’s sound and Rob Howell’s set - an enchanted Aladdin’s cave with letters and words for treasure.

I could have wished that the innovatory zest of London Road, the National’s sung-through documentary musical, was better recognised. But at least Nigel Harman, my guilty pleasure, picked up Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. His Lilliputian Lord Farquaad in Shrek was a diminutive, crowd-pleasing cracker.

Pleasing, also, to see Bruno Poet pick up the lighting award for Frankenstein. His onstage bruised and Blakean tints were counterweighed by a mighty glacier of bulbs, raked over the auditorium, and alternatively strobed with lightening, electricity and starlight. Blazingly good.

Bizarrely, the mandarins at SOLT (Society of West End Theatres), gave the porcineophile Betty Blue Eyes three nominations, including Best New Musical. Betty rather failed to bring home the bacon for Cameron Mackintosh, and closed after six months. Surely this demonstrates a critical bubble that’s gaily disengaged from actual audiences on the ground. Betty came home empty-handed, however.

As did the National’s big bucks piñata One Man Two Guvnors. In an underweight category, which also included the wryly observant Jumpy at the Royal Court, the Mastercard Best New Play went to John Hodge’s The Collaborators.

Ruth Wilson got Best Actress for Anna Christie, ahead of Marcia Warren, the “wraith in a pinny” from The Ladykillers, and Kristen Scott Thomas’s pinched and porcelain turn in Betrayal.  And a big footnote to Sheridan Smith, who now has a brace of Oliviers for the mantlepiece. This year’s was for Performance in a Supporting Role in the otherwise damp squib Flarepath.  She was the magnetic north of the show, and the very best exponent of the Rattigan restrained but heroic British resilience in the face of trauma. Her amiable chat as ex-barmaid Doris, her squawks of "dears" and "ducks," scarcely papered over the well of feeling for her Polish airman husband.

Smith has the art of appearing artless. The mini Matildas - who have had to give up ice-cream for the sake of their voices - may well walk in her footsteps. When they grow up.

The four Matildas receive their Olivier awards for best actress. Photo: Getty Images
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era