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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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood