The National Theatre’s After The Dance and West End musical Legally Blonde were the big winners at this year’s Olivier Awards with MasterCard, revealed in a glitzy ceremony at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Sunday 13 March.
A wealth of star presenters and invited guests joined the nominated talent for an awards show that included performances from singing superstar Barry Manilow, West End leading lady Kerry Ellis, opera star Alfie Boe and legend Angela Lansbury.
The major triumph of the evening came for After The Dance, director Thea Sharrock’s production of Terence Rattigan’s little-staged play which proved a hit for the National Theatre last year, despite closing prematurely when it premiered in 1939.
Though Sharrock missed out on the Best Director Award, Rattigan’s drama about a group of socialites whose lifestyle is threatened by impending war opened the ceremony by winning Best Revival. It went on to collect Best Costume Design, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Adrian Scarborough and Best Actress for leading lady Nancy Carroll, capitalising on her Evening Standard Award win earlier in the awards season.
“It was the complete unknown play that nobody had any real hope for, not just tonight but even putting it on,” said Sharrock. “And then when [National Theatre Artistic Director] Nick Hytner got behind it, he gave us the space to turn it into what we turned it into.”
Heavily pregnant Carroll, resplendent in lilac dress, added that the production’s combination of cast, director and location at the National Theatre produced a “chemical reaction” that led to its success. “To be at the front of the stage in those first few previews and to feel the reaction of an audience who were lulled into a false sense of security that they were in this drawing room comedy, and suddenly they were party to an emotional car crash, I think that’s something that live theatre offers; the unexpected, that chemical moment when a congregation of an audience react as one.”
“I feel like I’m completely blagging it and this man never did, so it’s such an honour”
Scarborough, who won plaudits for his portrayal of a lazy houseguest, said he knew he had to play the role after reading the drama in the National Theatre bookshop. “With every scene that I read the part just got better and better and better and more and more enticing until the final scene where I just thought if I don’t play this I will go to my grave an unhappy man.”
The National Theatre’s success continued with Howard Davies’s production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard picking up three awards. Davies, who won Best Director, said of the playwright: “I realised that he has this mad theatricality and he is very, very funny and he is very, very moving about people in predicaments which are bigger than themselves.”
The White Guard told the story of a Ukrainian family during the post Russian Revolution civil war. The production brought Davies back together with designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Neil Austin, with whom he worked on Philistines and will reunite with for the forthcoming The Cherry Orchard. “The thing about working in the theatre is that it’s truly collaborative,” said Davies. “It’s as much about the script as the design and the actors, right down to the stage management. So once you’ve got a good team together, stick with it.”
Set designer Christie added: “It’s [the National Theatre] such a fantastic place to work because the resources and the people that work there are really the best that you can work with and the spirit of making the show work was really high and such good fun.”
Equalling The White Guard in the musical categories was Legally Blonde The Musical, which picked up Best New Musical as well as wins for leading lady Sheridan Smith and supporting actress Jill Halfpenny.
An emotional Smith, who fought back tears as she collected her award on stage, said afterwards: “I’m just a little scrubber from Donny [Doncaster], I can’t quite believe I’ve won a Laurence Olivier Award. I feel like I’m completely blagging it and this man never did, so it’s such an honour.”
Smith later celebrated at the after-party at the glamorous Waldorf hotel, along with her parents and extended family. “For them to be here, that’s what set me off crying. I’m so overwhelmed.”
Vying with Smith for the unofficial award for Most Shocked Recipient was Michelle Terry, who collected Best Actress in a Supporting Role. “The people that I was nominated with are just incredible and the cumulative experience of those actresses is amazing, so I’m very, very shocked!” she said. Speaking about her role in Nina Raine’s Tribes, which told of prejudices within deaf and hearing communities, she commented: “There was a responsibility that comes with a subject matter like Tribes. And that was palpable in the rehearsal room. When you really feel like you are going out together telling a story that you believe in and that is necessary, it can’t help but take on a greater purpose than you ultimately, which is what you hope for in a job.”
Another big winner was Best Actor Roger Allam, whose performance as Falstaff at Shakespeare’s Globe led to his triumph in a weighty category that included Mark Rylance, David Suchet, Rory Kinnear and Derek Jacobi. The role, which Patrick Stewart had told him was “the middle aged man’s Hamlet”, was an ideal fit for the Globe, said Allam: “If you are going to play the Globe, it’s the perfect role to play there because Falstaff spends ages talking to the audience, he never stops, and therefore it’s perfect for the whole Globe ethos.”
“I just thought if I don’t play this I will go to my grave an unhappy man”
Wins also came for playwright Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park won the MasterCard Best New Play, The Railway Children, which picked up Best Entertainment, Into The Woods, which gave the Open Air theatre its second consecutive Best Musical Revival award, and Leon Baugh, who was awarded Best Theatre Choreographer for the Royal Court’s Sucker Punch. In an emotional speech, Baugh dedicated the win to the medical team at Great Ormond Street hospital where his daughter is being cared for.
As the ceremony concluded, viewers on the BBC Red Button were treated to the sight of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Sondheim receiving his Special Olivier Award from producer Cameron Mackintosh and legendary actress Angela Lansbury, who performed his song Liaisons.
It was the first time ever that the ceremony had been televised live, and the first time it had been broadcast at all for several years. This, along with coverage on BBC Radio 2 and online at olivierawards.com, helped to rightly raise the profile of a rejuvenated event which celebrates the achievements of a thriving industry. “I used to watch it on television as a kid and dream of winning one of these,” said Best Lighting Design winner Neil Austin. “I’m so pleased they are televising it again this year because that’s the way you inspire the next generation.”