Critics honour Donmar Warehouse

Published January 27, 2009

The Donmar Warehouse continued its dominance of London’s theatre awards by triumphing four categories in today’s Critics’ Circle Awards.

In the ceremony held in the Delfont room of the Prince of Wales theatre, Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Michael Grandage was named Best Director for two productions, The Chalk Garden at the Donmar itself and Ivanov at the Wyndham’s theatre as part of the Donmar West End season. Grandage described both productions as “very happy companies of lovely actors.”

The Donmar Warehouse’s success continued with Derek Jacobi’s joint win for The John and Wendy Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance, awarded for his role in Twelfth Night as part of the Donmar West End season at the Wyndham’s theatre. When asked by Official London Theatre why he thought the Donmar Warehouse was so successful, Jacobi said, “It’s the place itself. It’s the people in it. And of course it’s always down to leadership. When I was a younger actor at the National when it first started at the Old Vic, that leader was Laurence Olivier. Grandage has something of the same kind of leadership; he is a benign dictator. He knows exactly what he wants, he surrounds himself with the absolute best.”

Jacobi’s award was shared with David Tennent for his much talked about Hamlet. Unable to attend the ceremony, his pre-prepared acceptance speech said he was “utterly gobsmacked to be sharing this award with Derek Jacobi”, an actor he has long admired. He described the experience of Hamlet as “life changing and sublime”, before offering an apology for any grey hairs he caused his understudy Edward Bennett, referring to his absence from much of the London run due to a back injury.

Kenneth Branagh was named Best Actor for his title role in Ivanov. Branagh, currently directing a film in Hollywood, was unable to pick up his award, enlisting Ivanov co-star Kevin McNally’s help. Reading from a speech prepared in advance by Branagh, the actor thanked everyone involved who had “allowed me to play a role I have cherished since the age of 18”, thanking the Donmar Warehouse and Wyndham’s theatre for “an experience that was memorable and joyous”.

Margaret Tyzack claimed the last of the Donmar’s awards, the Best Actress award, for her part in The Chalk Garden, the presenter Claire Allfree describing her performance as “snagging at your heart by making your sides ache with laughter”. Responding to receiving an award from the critics, Tyzack told Official London Theatre, “I’m very pleased because the audiences absolutely loved it and adored it, and obviously the play and what we did with it, people were incredibly hungry for and it’s lovely for the critics to understand that. And it is, of course, the only play I’ve ever been in, in 60 years, where the critics stood on the first night.”

Away from the Donmar actress Ella Smith was awarded The Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer for her role as the vivacious and voluptuous Helen in Fat Pig. During her acceptance speech, Smith spoke of her joy at working with the show’s playwright and director Neil La Bute, who allowed her the freedom of making the part of Helen her own.

In a category where, unusually, one of the critics was nominated (Nicholas de Jongh for Plague Over England), the award for Most Promising Playwright was taken by Alexi Kaye Campbell for The Pride, which was staged at the Royal Court Upstairs and explored the changing attitudes to sexuality over a period of 50 years. Campbell paid tribute to Royal Court Artistic Director Dominic Cooke in his speech, admitting that programming his play was “a very, very difficult thing to do…but the brave choice was the right choice”. When asked by Official London Theatre whether the he felt the award put pressure on him, he said “I do, I do… But in a good way. It’s very good to be motivated, because a lot of our business, unfortunately, is in some ways quite demotivating. To receive an award like this is very motivating.”

The Menier Chocolate Factory production of the flamboyant, camp musical La Cage Aux Folles took home The Peter Happle Award for Best New Musical. Director Terry Johnson accepted the award, thanking producer Sonia Friedman for taking “a modest hit and turning it into a big hit”, referring to its successful West End transfer last October to the Playhouse theatre where it is currently starring Graham Norton. Talking to Official London Theatre Johnson said, “It’s not my award, it really is an award for 40-odd people… It’s hard getting a musical together on hardly any money and in a small playhouse. People work inordinately hard. So it’s good that that’s been recognised.”

Familial drama August: Osage County was awarded Best New Play. Thrilled playwright Tracy Letts accepted the award, saying “In Okalahoma we call this the gravy!” Crediting the National theatre, which he described as “a treasure”, he expressed the pleasure of all the company, who, hesitant to even leave their Chicago homes to perform the Broadway run, were determined to perform on the London stage.

Finally, Neil Murray took home the award for Best Designer for his work on Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter at the Cinema Haymarket London. The play, which presenter and Guardian critic Lyn Gardner called “witty, touching and hugely entertaining”, opened in a cinema and attempted to bring glamour back to the London stage, with its old-fashioned style and unique staging.

The awards confirmed yesterday’s announcement that 2008 was a record breaking year for London theatre, with many presenters and actors commenting on the West End’s ability to shine through what was, in other sectors, a rather dismal economic year for London.

CM