The issue of a widening divide between the opinions of the theatre critics and theatre fans is one which has been debated on many occasions; I myself have written on the subject in the past. It seems to be happening more and more often that a musical or play that is popular with fans ends up on the receiving end of a less-than-favourable review from critics, demonstrating that the two appear to be growing out of touch with one another. The internet has allowed anyone to become a reviewer through the use of social media sites, message forums and personal blogs, yet it is the words of the professional critics which are, as a rule, considered the ones that really matter. It’s critical evaluation vs public opinion, and the value placed in the first is what makes a positive write-up from a theatre critic a ‘seal of approval’ that takes precedent over that of any theatre fan.
This viewpoint extends into other areas of the theatre industry beyond critics though, including theatre awards. The Laurence Olivier Awards are the crème de la crème of this country’s theatre awards, our equivalent to the Tony Awards, and regarded as the most prestigious and respected of all the UK theatre awards. The judging panel is made up almost exclusively of industry professionals, in stark contrast to the likes of the WhatsOnStage Awards which are voted for by the theatre-going public. So following the announcement of the nominations for the 2015 Olivier Awards, I took a look back at the 15th annual WhatsOnStage Awards to see how the different judging methods affect which people/shows are honoured.
The big winner at the WhatsOnStage Awards, which took place last month (Sunday 15th February 2015), was Miss Saigon. Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of the classic Boublil and Schönberg musical went home with a record 9 awards, including Best West End Show and Best Actor/Best Actress In A Musical for Jon Jon Briones and Eva Noblezada. The West End première production of Memphis The Musical was also one of the success stories of the night, as was the stage play of Shakespeare In Love and the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus. Will they fare just as well at the Olivier Awards next month? It hardly seems likely as, with the exception of Memphis, all the big WhatsOnStage Awards winners have been majorly snubbed by the Oliviers.
They claim that this has been a strong year for musicals, but apparently, the industry professionals and theatre fans have very different ideas about which musicals were the biggest West End hits. Miss Saigon received just 2 Olivier nominations, for Best Musical Revival and Best Actor In A Musical. Jon Jon Briones represents the musical with his Best Actor nomination, having already won in the same category at the WhatsOnStage Awards, and his inclusion in the Oliviers is no huge surprise as his critically-acclaimed performance as The Engineer has been raved about by critics and audiences alike since Miss Saigon returned to the West End. Made In Dagenham and Urinetown, both of which are popular with fans, were also noticeably absent from the Oliviers nominations short-list, which was led by Memphis The Musical with 9 nominations, and Beautiful The Carole King Musical with 8 nominations.
In terms of plays, it was the Young Vic which received the most recognition, sweeping the board with a record 11 nominations – the most for any single venue – and upstaging the National Theatre. After a strong few years, the National received just 3 nominations with the only one of its productions to make a dent in the Oliviers this year: Here Lies Love. The Young Vic on the other hand, which was established by the National, found success with its productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From The Bridge, The Scottsboro Boys and Bull. The Donmar Warehouse did well too, earning 6 nominations between its productions of City of Angels and My Night With Reg.
Taking a closer look at the individual nominees in the Oliver Awards, and those from the WhatsOnStage Awards, these differences in how industry professionals and the theatre-going public perceive who/what is deserving of being honoured become very apparent.
The only two categories both awards agreed upon in regards to Miss Saigon were Best Actor In A Musical and Best Musical Revival – the production and its cast were snubbed in every other category. Eva Noblezada, who leads as Kim in the show, won Best Actress In A Musical at the WhatsOnStage Awards, but wasn’t even named as a nominee in the Oliviers. The same happened to Supporting Actor/Actress In A Musical winners Kwang-Ho Hong and Rachelle Ann Go.
Unlike in the WhatsOnStage Awards, well-known names Marti Pellow (Evita) and Robert Lindsay (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were left out of the Olivier nominations for Best Actor In A Musical, as too was Miss Saigon‘s male lead Alistair Brammer. It was nice to see Memphis star Killian Donnelly in the nominations list however, joined by John Dagleish (Sunny Afternoon) and Brandon Victor Dixon (The Scottsboro Boys). In Best Actress In A Musical, Jenna Russell (Urinetown) and Madalena Alberto (Evita) also failed to make the cut alongside Noblezada, although Gemma Arterton and Beverley Knight both gained Olivier nominations for their performances in Made In Dagenham and Memphis The Musical respectively. Memphis The Musical won Best New Musical in the WhatsOnStage Awards, and has the chance to repeat the feat in the Oliviers after being nominated alongside fellow musicals Here Lies Love and Sunny Afternoon. Urinetown and Made In Dagenham were left off the list this time however, their place taken by Beautiful The Carole King Musical.
In the straight theatre categories, well-known actors David Tennant and Tom Hiddleston didn’t receive Olivier nominations for Best Actor, despite Tennant winning the award for the title role in Richard II at the WhatsOnStage Awards. Mark Strong (A View From The Bridge) and Richard Armitage (The Crucible) were recognised by both Awards, as too was James McAvoy, which thankfully allowed The Ruling Class star to avoid embarrassment as he announced the 2015 Olivier nominees alongside Lesley Manville. Tennant’s former Doctor Who co-star, Billie Piper, was also a winner at the WhatsOnStage Awards in the Best Actress category, but like him, she too failed to be recognised for her performance in Great Britain at the National Theatre. Shakespeare In Love star, Lucy Briggs-Owen, was also left out, although Gillian Anderson (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Imelda Staunton (Good People) were named as Olivier nominees for Best Actress. Coriolanus cast mates Hadley Fraser and Mark Gatiss were absent from the list of nominees for Best Actor In A Supporting Role, even though Gatiss won at the WhatsOnStage Awards, in what was another snub for the Donmar’s production of the Shakespeare play. Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) was the only WhatsOnStage nominee to also be nominated for an Olivier, joined in the category by David Calder (The Nether), John Light (Taken At Midnight) and Richard Goulding (King Charles III). Interestingly, all the names in the Best Actress In A Supporting Role category in both Awards differed from one another. Shakespeare In Love was named Best New Play at the WhatsOnStage Awards, but in the 2015 Oliviers, the first-place position will be a competition between King Charles III, Taken At Midnight, The Nether and Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies. WhatsOnStage Awards Best Revival winner, Coriolanus, was once again snubbed in the same category in the Oliviers, losing out to nominees A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From The Bridge, My Night With Reg, Skylight and The Crucible.
Major differences were especially apparent between the list of nominees for Best Director, Best Theatre Choreographer, Best Set Design and Best Lighting, with Miss Saigon noticeably left out after winning 3 out of the 4 categories at the WhatsOnStage Awards, with the exclusion of Best Lighting Design which went to Coriolanus.
It is the West End transfers from publicly subsidised theatre which are leading the 2015 Olivier Awards, with King Charles III gaining 6 nominations and Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies gaining 5 nominations. When you compare the list of names short-listed for this year’s Oliviers with the nominees/winners of the WhatsOnStage Awards, there really is a glaring difference between public opinion and the judgement of industry professionals. Perhaps a big reason for this is that with the WhatsOnStage Awards being decided by the theatre-going public, voters are simply picking their favourite performers, shows and/or the most well-known names? Clearly there are people that do just this, but I like to give the theatre fans a little more credit than that as there are plenty out there who are more than capable of choosing winners based on an unbiased and knowledgeable understanding of West End theatre. Theatre is all about opinions, and there are no right or wrong answers; it’s just interesting to see how much of a divide there can be when theatre is judged from two separate viewpoints, which in turn offers the opportunity to debate the reasons behind such differences.
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Thursday 12th March 2015