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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times