Newcomers and established theatre figures shared the honours at the Olivier awards this year in a ceremony which was re-imagined for the Covid age.
A number of shows were honoured, but still there was one apparent constant: Sharon D Clarke, who scooped best actress for her performance in the Young Vic’s Death Of A Salesman and has become a fixture on the Olivier recognition lists. She was nominated for a supporting performance in 1995, 2003 and 2012, won supporting actress in 2014 and was named best actress in a musical in 2019 for her role in Caroline, Or Change.
Accepting her award, she thanked her wife Susie McKenna and theatre’s freelancers, who have been among the hardest hit cultural workers during the pandemic. “We must know our worth in this industry, and what our incredible industry brings not only to the coffers, but to the soul of our nation. Keep the faith people. We will be back.”
The comedian Jason Manford hosted a virtual awards show, which was pre-recorded at the London Palladium and shown on Sunday evening on YouTube and ITV.
The original awards were postponed in March as a result of the coronavirus lockdown shortly after nominations were announced. A special TV programme ran on 5 April, the night on which the awards were due to have been held at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Two new musicals, Dear Evan Hansen and & Juliet, took three awards each, while Sharon D Clarke won best actress for her performance in the Young Vic’s Death Of A Salesman and Andrew Scott won best actor for Present Laughter at the Old Vic. In his acceptance speech, Scott praised the comedy instinct of the 1943 play’s writer, Noël Coward, saying sense of humour is “something that’s helped us all survive in the past couple of months during this really arduous time”.
The Swedish pop producer Max Martin led the nominations with nine for his jukebox musical & Juliet, which reimagines the ending to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It took three awards, all in acting categories, with wins for David Bedella as best actor in a supporting role in a musical, Cassidy Janson as best actress in a supporting role in a musical and Miriam-Teak Lee as best actress in a musical.
Janson dedicated her award to the team behind & Juliet, saying: “You are so skilled, so viable, so valuable and please don’t any of you ever retrain” – a reference to the chancellor’s comments about “viable” jobs and government-backed adverts suggesting those in the arts could retrain in tech.
Martin’s new work shared the spoils in the musical categories with another West End debutant, Dear Evan Hansen.
The teen musical, which transferred to the Noël Coward theatre from Broadway in November 2019 after winning six Tony awards and being propelled by a young, enthusiastic online audience, took best new musical and best original score or new orchestrations. Sam Tutty also won best actor in a musical.
Alongside new winners were established Olivier stalwarts including Matthew Bourne, who won his ninth, becoming the most successful individual in the history of the awards. Bourne won best theatre choreographer alongside Stephen Mear for Mary Poppins, while Ian McKellen – another serial winner – took home his seventh for his 80th birthday tour.
The best director award, which has been renamed in honour of Sir Peter Hall, went to Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell who co-directed Death of a Salesman. Introducing that award, Sam Mendes urged people watching the awards to donate to his Theatre Artist Fund, which he set up to support theatre workers during the pandemic.
Present Laughter also won two awards, with Scott’s award followed by Indira Varma, who took home her first Olivier after winning best supporting actress. Varma thanked the Oliviers for pledging to tackle fair representation. She said: “I cannot wait that once this pandemic is over and theatres are reopened to see the talent that emerges, and the new opportunities given to those who are sometimes left out.”
Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s generation-spanning story at the Wyndham’s theatre of a Jewish family in Vienna, produced by Sonia Friedman, scooped two gongs: American Airlines best new play, and best actor in a supporting role for Adrian Scarborough. Another Friedman production, Fiddler On The Roof at the Playhouse theatre, won Magic Radio best musical revival.
Bob Crowley won his third Olivier for best set design for his work on Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward theatre. The Spanish dancer and choreographer Sara Baras was awarded outstanding achievement in dance for her choreography and performance in Ballet Flamenco, Sombras at Sadler’s Wells.
The lyricist Don Black received a special award for his contributions to musical theatre presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Duchess of Cornwall, and was one of a number of stars who gave impassioned speeches about the importance of theatre in a year in which it has been devasted by the Covid-19 crisis.
Emilia at Vaudeville theatre won two technical awards, with Joanna Scotcher winning best costume design and Emma Laxton taking home the Royal Albert Hall award for best sound design.
Other winners included Cyrano De Bergerac at Playhouse theatre (Cunard best revival), Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House (best new opera production), Ingoma by Mthuthuzeli November (best new dance production), Baby Reindeer at Bush theatre (outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre) and The Children’s Ensemble for their performance in Noye’s Fludde at Theatre Royal Stratford East (outstanding achievement in opera).
Julian Bird, the executive producer of the Olivier awards and chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, said: “This is not how we had originally planned to celebrate this year’s outstanding Olivier nominees, but like so many others we have adapted to these challenging times. I am thrilled that we have been able to safely pull together this programme that will hopefully engage and inspire audiences at home while reminding them of the talent and vibrancy within our theatre industry.”