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17 March 2011

There’s life beyond the Oliviers

It's time theatre awards recognised the provinces.

By Gina Allum

On Sunday, the winners of the Oliviers, “British theatre’s most sought after awards” were announced. In an effort to Oscar-cise and Tony-vate the event, organisers even brought on the big show-guns like Angela Lansbury and, er, Barry Manilow. But if the desired glitz was a little undermined by the line-up, it was sunk entirely by the clownish BBC coverage. An over-heated Jodie Prenger ran divertingly amok on the red carpet, but far worse was inflicted on us by the editing: we were denied Nancy Carroll’s acceptance speech (for best actress in After the Dance) in favour of an interview with Gok Wan, who hadn’t seen any of the shows, but who knows a thing or two about man-scarves.

Responsible for the Larrys and their US-style showbiz revamp is The Society of London Theatre (Solt). Despite the rhetoric, and public perception, “Britain’s” most prestigious awards are nothing of the kind: they are London’s awards. And covering less than half of London venues at that: Solt members and affiliates only. The small-scale and non-building based – everything outside “Theatreland” – is all but ignored.

The judges are “industry professionals” appointed by Solt, and members of the public, who are vetted by Solt. It puts me in mind of Jean Luc Godard’s rebuke to Truffaut: “You say films are trains that pass in the night, but who takes the train, in which class, and who is driving it with a management snitch at his side?” In this case, it is broadly clear who is driving the train, and pouring themselves a big congratulatory glass of Bolly at the same time – though specifics of the professional judges’ interest and connection with the shows, if any, are far from transparent.

As far as the Oliviers are concerned, the provinces don’t exist. Which is ironic, considering the cogent plea for spending cuts clemency in the regions made by luminaries like Helen Mirren, Mike Leigh and Kenneth Brannagh in the Observer this weekend (part of actors’ union Equity’s wider campaign). The RSC’s smash-hit musical Matilda will only be eligible for nomination if and when it transfers to the West End.

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London is pretty well loved-up between the Oliviers and the Off-West End awards (or “Offies”), though there is a confusing intersection: Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith won both an Olivier and an Offie. There are a further three lots of capital-centric accolades I can think of. But apart from the odd bone, in the regions it’s still a case of here be dragons.

But the West End is neither synonymous with, nor the “best of,” British theatre. Lee Ross was nominated for best supporting actor in Birdsong, and whilst he deserved gongs aplenty, as far as I’m concerned, for supporting the entire rickety play, I infinitely preferred his performance in Marine Parade at the Brighton Festival. It’s as if a theatrical experience here is somehow lesser than one on Shaftesbury Avenue; the desired trajectory for an actor or a play is a Dick Whittington one: to move from “the provinces” to the capital. Even the rallying call for funding in the regions cites their role as a training ground for greater, metropolitan things, rather than a legitimate end in itself.

Solt, and its awards to itself, do at least straddle the subsidised and commercial sectors: the Royal Court and the National were big winners on Sunday. Without subsidy Theatreland would be even more risk averse (there’d be no Clybourne Park), and we’d end up with the merry-go-round of musicals that is Broadway. And thankfully there is still room for the odd David to rise through the ranks and slap the Goliaths: Best New Opera went to OperaUpClose’s production of La Bohème, which started life at the 35-seat Cock Tavern before transferring to the Soho Theatre. Personally gratifying, also, to see the fragrant Sheridan Smith and Legally Blonde snatch trophies from the Phantom sequel “The Franchise Never Dies”.

But, based on an eclectic consumption of theatre around the country this year, I’m not sure I could decide on the relative value of a performance given in a shed in Bath, say, over the rococo excesses of Drury Lane. Some of the most startling shows I have seen have been many, many miles from London. Perhaps we should inaugurate a truly national award, equal to the Oliviers in prestige, that celebrates our regional centres and our caravanserais of nomadic performers: the Noliviers? And the nominations are…?