Chatting over small sausages and mini meringues, the Olivier Award nominees tell Caroline Bishop about the shows that earned them a place in the 2011 nominations.
She may have been nominated for Best Actress in a Musical this year, but Legally Blonde’s Sheridan Smith has another reason for appreciating the Laurence Olivier Awards. “It was actually at the Oliviers two years ago [that] the director Jerry Mitchell saw me perform in something from Little Shop Of Horrors and he said ‘that’s my Elle Woods’ so it’s thanks to the Oliviers that I even got the part.”
Smith was speaking at the annual nominees’ lunch, held in the glamorous pool room at the Haymarket Hotel on 22 February. The Legally Blonde The Musical star – who has since left her pink velour tracksuit behind to appear in Flare Path this spring – is among a line-up of 2011 nominees for whom a win at the ceremony on 13 March would just be the icing on the cake of what was already a special stage experience.
“It was really hard to leave,” added Smith. “I’d done it for so long and I didn’t want to get bored of it and I left still loving it.”
Her co-stars in Legally Blonde – which picked up five nominations including Best New Musical – were equally appreciative of the heart-warming show which came over from Broadway in late 2009. “I really thank Jerry [Mitchell] the director for casting me in that role because it’s not really necessarily something that people would see me doing,” said Jill Halfpenny, who played beautician Paulette. “It’s so brilliant as an actress to get to do things that you don’t usually do.”
It is a sentiment shared by Michael Xavier, who has pulled off the impressive feat of being nominated in two categories this year. His performance opposite Emma Williams in Love Story earned him a Best Actor in a Musical nomination, while the dual role of the Wolf and the Prince in Into The Woods resulted in further recognition.
“We were an unknown show, effectively an unknown playwright and very little advance publicity” (Peter Quilter)
“The great thing for me is that I was playing two – well technically three – completely different roles. It’s just great as an actor, especially within musical theatre, to get a chance to play a variety of characters… and to get nominated for them as well is a dream come true.”
Xavier praised his Love Story co-star Williams, saying “part of me being nominated for that role is due to how good Emma is.”
For Williams, whose performance earned her the second nomination of her career, playing Jenny in Love Story was the result of a strong belief in the show. “I first worked on the show four years ago in the workshop stages and it’s the only workshop I’ve ever done – and I’ve done quite a few – where I’ve finished it and had to write to everybody involved just to go ‘I think this show is potentially amazing and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it and please consider me one day if you do it’,” she said.
While Love Story and Legally Blonde were new to the London stage (though both based on films), for other nominees the challenge was to rejuvenate a well-known role. It is a feat that Best Actor nominee David Suchet pulled off with flare. Despite being nominated several times before but never having won, the actor said he was “thrilled” with his nomination for All My Sons because “the role I played is not usually the one in the play that has ever got awards or nominations”. Suchet, who comes to the Laurence Olivier Awards having already won a Critics’ Circle Award for his performance as Joe Keller, added: “The fact that it’s been such a phenomenal awards season for me has been the biggest shock because to be honest it’s usually the wife’s play, because she’s the emotional centre, and the son. The last time it was on [in London] the mother, the son and the girl all got Oliviers. So I’m knocked out.”
Rachael Stirling, nominated for playing Lady Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, also put her own spin on a classic role: “That particular part, nobody ever wants to play it, they always think she’s boring,” she said. “She doesn’t have any laughs particularly, you have to try and find the laughs, you have to try and find the pathos, you have to try and find the humour in it so she’s not just a kind of immovable puritan. So I’ve done that to the best of my ability and people seem to enjoy it.”
It is not just actors who are the recipients of the Laurence Olivier Awards. Directors, writers and producers of nominated shows were also celebrating at the Haymarket Hotel, including director Chris Rolls, whose production of Les Parents Terribles is nominated in the affiliate category this year.
“To give a group of young directors the chance to put on a show in the West End and show their trust in them is wonderful and quite visionary really,” he said of the Donmar Warehouse, which gave Rolls and two other graduates from its Resident Assistant Director scheme that opportunity. “So to get to do it in the first place is wonderful, but then for it to have been given a validation of this sort is fantastic.”
“I’d done it for so long and I didn’t want to get bored of it and I left still loving it” (Sheridan Smith)
Equally pleased to be nominated were the trio behind Best Entertainment nominee Potted Panto. Co-writer and performer Jefferson Turner commented of the Christmassy comedy show: “I think having written two shows between us before, obviously our writing style, together, has hopefully matured. Although that might not be quite the right word! So I think we’ll all agree it’s probably, from a writing point of view, the best written of the three.”
Writer Peter Quilter, whose play End Of The Rainbow is among this year’s Mastercard Best New Play nominees, expressed the commercial difficulties that can face new plays in the West End. “We were an unknown show, effectively an unknown playwright and very little advance publicity, no star. I thought if we can survive 12 weeks that would be great.”
As it is, the Judy Garland bio-play has extended already, and would extend further if it weren’t for the immense physical and emotional pressures placed on its leading lady, Best Actress nominee Tracie Bennett, who said she was “living like an athlete” to get through the performance schedule. “Mentally, I get really scared as I’m putting my make up on every night, really scared, going ‘oh God what do I have to do?’ but then I calm myself down,” she said. “But once I get on [stage] I just go with what the director’s told you to do and you don’t think about it, you just concentrate. It’s mammoth concentration. So you need to eat well and sleep. If I’m tired it’s not the same.”
Bennett’s hard work has paid off, with End Of The Rainbow becoming one of the hit plays of the year. Vying for the same description – and the same Olivier Award – is Clybourne Park, which is currently playing in the West End following its premiere at the Royal Court. One of its stars, Best Actress nominee Sophie Thompson, expressed what it is like to be in a successful show “It’s just lovely to be able to revisit something you enjoyed so much to begin with and it’s lovely to carry on and for people to come and see it. It’s lovely to get good crowds in the theatre.”
For some, however, the stage experience that earned them a nomination is now in the past. But that doesn’t mean it is forgotten. As Sheridan Smith said, repeating something she quoted to herself after her final performance, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
For full details of this year’s Olivier Awards with MasterCard, visit www.olivierawards.com