“Keep the faith, people, we will be back”: That exhortation, spoken by Death of a Salesman’s newly crowned best actress in a play recipient Sharon D. Clarke, was emblematic of the defiant tone struck during the 2020 Olivier Awards, which were given out Sunday night at the London Palladium more than six months after the original date for the ceremony – April 7 – was scratched due to the pandemic. The show, with Jason Manford, comedian and star of the Christmas 2019 West End run of the musical Curtains as a multitasking host, was shown online in full and, in part, on the commercial ITV channel.
But even if the winning productions can’t be seen at the moment, their achievement must not be allowed to go to the wall. That was the takeaway message of a London evening that will surely anticipate much of the same in New York in due course when the 2020 Tonys are awarded belatedly later this year. The difference is that this season’s Olivier nominees acknowledged a full season of work whereas the Tony roster failed to include a hefty number of the Broadway season’s most-anticipated shows, due to the COVID-prompted shutdown falling before the late-spring onslaught of New York openings. Also, theatre has to some extent started up again in London, albeit in piecemeal fashion, even as New York's theatrical shutdown continues.
This year’s Oliviers awarded the top prizes, as more or less expected, to previous Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, which took three trophies, including best musical and best actor in a musical for its appealingly plaintive leading man, newcomer Sam Tutty, and to 83-year-old Tom Stoppard, for his intergenerational Leopoldstadt, in which the venerated dramatist addressed his Jewish roots for the first time. That play’s invaluable company member, Adrian Scarborough, won for his supporting performance, among the most deserving calls of the night.
The Max Martin jukebox show & Juliet scored Oliviers for three of its cast – Cassidy Janson, David Bedella, and leading lady Miriam-Teak Lee, who performed during the ceremony as did Evan Hansen’s Tutty. Bedella seems to have a hotline to this particular trophy, having bagged three Oliviers of his own over the years, this being his second under the guidance of director Luke Sheppard, who was at the helm of Bedella’s last Olivier win, for In the Heights.
The popular Old Vic revival of Present Laughter, Noel Coward’s deliciously autobiographical comedy, won trophies for leading man Andrew Scott and for supporting performer Indira Varma, both of whom have appeared of late in the Old Vic’s In Camera series of plays performed in real time to an empty auditorium. And the Salesman revival, featuring a largely Black cast, won the director prize for an impassioned Marianne Elliott and her frequent collaborator Miranda Cromwell. Elliott, an Olivier nominee last year for the gender-flipped Company, sounded close to tears as she lauded theatre people as “key workers … provid[ing] the medicine that people need,” these days more than ever. Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm's feminist take on the Elizabethan age, Emilia, won three prizes, including best entertainment or comedy for the Globe-originated venture which transferred to the West End.
Several winners repeated triumphs from 2019: Clarke was last year’s leading musical actress winner for Caroline, or Change, and choreographer Matthew Bourne, who was given a special Olivier at last year's Royal Albert Hall gala for the breadth of his career, won this year’s choreography prize, alongside Stephen Mear, for the revival of Mary Poppins; Bob Crowley’s design for the same show won for best set, in the process besting two far more adventurous designs by War Horse alumna Rae Smith. (Bourne now has six Oliviers including a previous one for, yes, Mary Poppins!)
At least two winners would, in a non-COVID world, have been seen in New York by now: the director Jamie Lloyd’s rap-inflected Cyrano de Bergerac, which took the prize for best play revival, and Richard Gadd’s stunning solo piece Baby Reindeer, which surely could return to the boards any minute since it’s ideally suited to the small-scale demands of the theatre just now. (Weirdly, Lloyd’s startling and bold reappraisal of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston and up for a Tony in several categories, received no Olivier nods at all.)
The musical revival went to Trevor Nunn’s stirring take on Fiddler on the Roof, starring Andy Nyman and Judy Kuhn, while Nunn’s longtime friend and colleague, Ian McKellen, was honoured for his mighty On Stage tour, which found the legendary thespian in his 80th birthday year touring venues large and small across the country before landing on the West End, all the profits from the run given over to charity. In a brief mid-ceremony exchange with a chatty Manford, McKellen posed perhaps the query of the night, when he wondered aloud whether, in the post-COVID world that with luck will come sooner rather than later, “there will ever be a cough in the theatre again”?
Now that’s something worth pondering as we eagerly await the return en masse of curtain up.
Photo credit: Adrian Scarborough in Leopoldstadt (Photo by Marc Brenner)