Friday Briefing: The Brits snubbed at the Tonys, and All About Eve's very meta performance

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The winners (and losers) in the Tony nominations

Nominations for this year's Tony Awards on Broadway, announced on Tuesday, saw two original plays transferred from London's Royal Court and Almeida respectively scoring highly, as well as two more shows developed in partnership with the National Theatre where they ran first - Network and Hadestown - that also both moved to Broadway this season.

However, a number of high profile Brits were also snubbed in the nominations process - notably Glenda Jackson, who won multiple awards in London for her King Lear at the Old Vic. Last year, Jackson won the Tony for best leading actress for Three Tall Women, but reprising her King Lear on Broadway saw her  fail to pick up a nomination (though co-star Ruth Wilson was named in the featured actress category, the production's sole recognition).

Eva Noblezada is nominated for best actress in a musical
for her performance as Eurydice in Hadestown.

Leading the Tony field with 14 nominations is Hadestown, which has progressed to Broadway via developmental runs at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Canada and last year at London's National Theatre, with Eva Noblezada and Patrick Page both nominated for reprising their NT roles. Other musicals nominated for best musical included Ain't too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations (12 nominations overall), Tootsie (11), Beetlejuice (8) and The Prom (7).

Overlooked were Pretty Woman (which opened last summer with British musical actor Samantha Barks (Eponine in the film version of Les Miserables) in the title role and didn't score a single mention), Head over Heels (already long closed, and entirely shut out of the awards too), the stage version of King Kong (though it was nominated in three other categories, and in fact also already has been given one win of a Special Tony to the Sonny Tilders and Creature Technology Company for creating the title character), The Cher Show (three other nominations) and Be More Chill (it received a single nomination for original score).

The even more crowded best play category saw 13 new plays vying for five slots, so there were inevitable omissions, but the two biggest surprises were the absence of the much-lauded To Kill a Mockingbird (which still managed a roster of nine nominations overall) and Network (five). Instead, Tony love went most of all to The Ferryman (nine nominations, including for leading actor Paddy Considine, leading actress Laura Donnelly and featured actress Finnoula Flanagan) and Ink (six nominations, including featured actor Bertie Carvel for playing Murdoch, though his co-star Jonny Lee Miller failed to be nominated), with the best play category being completed by Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, What the Constitution Means to Me and the already-closed Choir Boy.

British creatives featured particularly prominently in best direction of a play (nods for Rupert Goold for Ink and Sam Mendes for The Ferryman) and design of a play (Bunny Christie for Ink, Rob Howell for The Ferryman and the Britain-based Miriam Buether for To Kill a Mockingbird). Howell was additionally nominated for his costumes for The Ferryman, and lighting designers Neil Austin (Ink) and Peter Mumford (nominated for both The Ferryman and King Kong) and sound designers Adam Cork (Ink) and Nick Powell (The Ferryman) also recognised.

If some categories were overstuffed with potential nominees, the best musical revival category was sparsely populated: just two shows, Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate are in contention, as I previously noted in my column.

The awards will be presented in a ceremony hosted by James Corden at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, with more information at New York Theatre Guide

Understudies claim the limelight for one day

Among the most unsung heroes of the theatre are understudies, actors who have to learn their roles with no expectation of actually going on to appear - and if and when they do, hearing a groan of disappointment from an audience who'd come to see the star names.

But there is one performance in every run where they at least get to perform for an eager audience who've actually come specifically to see them: the invitation-only public understudy open rehearsal. I was invited by one of them to attend the run for All About Eve last week - and what a thrill it was. The atmosphere in the audience is nothing but supportive and it's also a great way to catch a free afternoon in the theatre.

Lily James plays Eve Harington in the production, 
but it was time for Tsion Habte to perform the role
at the understudy run of All About Eve.

I'd enjoyed this stage adaptation by Ivo van Hove when it first opened at the Noel Coward Theatre back in February, though I found some of van Hove's filmic effects intrusive, as cameras eavesdropped live on characters backstage and even in the toilet. A play rooted in theatrical performance became partly about a filmed one.

But seeing the understudy run gave it an extra meta-theatrical charge: a play about an understudy grasping for her chance in the limelight (and trying to usurp the star) was suddenly being performed by people who are understudies themselves, getting their chance to shine.

Joined by Olivier winner Monica Dolan, Rhashan Stone and Ian Drysdale reprising their actual roles, this was a rich, deep performance of the play. Tsion Habte had a special eagerness and vulnerability as the usurping Eve Harrington, while Phillipa Peak as Margo Channing had a brittle sense of desperation around her advancing years that she felt would soon make her redundant.  Both predicaments felt utterly plausible from actors actually less famous than their characters.

And the cautionary tale of the theatre critic Addison DeWitt turned predator remained a particular scary prospect as played with understated menace by Michael Warburton

I wouldn't miss a hiring....

Ever since I saw (and adored) the original West End production of Melvyn Bragg's musical version of his novel The Hired Man, set to a simply gorgeous score by Howard Goodall back in 1984, it has become a signature musical in my life: easily, in my opinion, the very best British musical of the last forty years,  with its authentically yearning score based on English choral traditions.

I've also become a firm devotee (and friend) of Goodall in the years since; I went to Oldham for the premiere of his next musical Girlfriends in 1986, ahead of its unsuccessful transfer to the West End's Playhouse. Last year, Girlfriends stunning score was given a series of brilliant concert performances by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, which was recorded and has just been released on CD, making its glories available for the first time. I've followed the composer to Oxford (for the 1990 premiere of Days of Hope, subsequently seen at Hampstead Theatre) and Salisbury (for Two Cities), to two musicals written for the National Youth Music Theatre (The Dreaming and The Kissing Dance) and to two more West End musicals (Love Story, which transferred to the Duchess from Chichester and Bend It Like Beckham). I've also followed his choral and classical writing career wherever it has taken him.

But this week I came full circle back to The Hired Man and a ravishing small-scale production at Hornchurch's Queen's Theatre, that is set to transfer to Hull and Oldham after. As usual, I spent most of the second act in tears - there's something so heartfelt and shattering in this searing portrait of life on the land, in the mines & the trenches of World War One that it touches my soul.

The terrific, versatile cast is spellbindingly led by Oliver Hembrough and Lauryn Redding, with strong support (both as musicians and actors) from Lloyd Gorman, TJ Holmes and Samuel Martin. The show is both wrenching and wonderful.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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