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Olivier Awards unite two worlds of UK theatre

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Will Gompertz | 11:30 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

There is a certain Eau de Brie-ness about the Olivier Awards: what with the heraldic trumpeters and the merry-go-round of troupers bouncing onto stage to knock out a show tune or two. The sense of kitsch is heightened by the incongruity of the audience: serious-minded thespians squirming uncomfortably in their seats, while chorus line hoofers hug themselves with glee.

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There was an element of the Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols about the event: the coming together of two disparate worlds. That was until the 85 year-old Angela Lansbury came on and sang a Stephen Sondheim number with such conviction that she united the house. And it is moments like that which capture the essence of British theatre's success and the important role the Oliviers play in celebrating it.

There are two worlds within the UK's theatrical universe: the subsidised companies and the commercial productions. But that doesn't mean they are mutually exclusive, although their tastes can differ. Increasingly the subsidised sector and the commercial theatre are working together. For example, Clybourne Park was one of last night's winners. It opened in London at the (subsidised) Royal Court before transferring to the (commercial) West End for a successful run. It is a joint venture between the Royal Court and Sonia Friedman, the impresario behind another of last night's big winners, the musical Legally Blonde. Two shows couldn't appear further apart conceptually, but are in fact inextricably linked.

Directors, actors, technicians and musicians constantly flit between the two sides of theatre, learning and sharing skills along the way. Britain is succeeding where other countries are failing because the subsidised theatres have the opportunity to take risks, while the commercial producers help broaden audiences and interest. Of course that's a gross simplification, but the point is that both sides do better because of the other.

Which is why they are united in their concern about the impending cuts to public funding of the arts. They all know the fragile ecosystem in which they operate. What is bad for subsidised theatre is bad for commercial theatre. And of particular concern to both is the double threat looming over regional theatres that face centralised cuts via Arts Council England and local cuts by their own councils.

Producers and directors say that regional theatre is an essential part of the creative and commercial mix, and that any damage to its capacity to produce and promote a full programme of productions will directly affect the well-being of the major national companies and the West End. Which is why I hope next year the Oliviers show more of a commitment to regional theatre. Currently the awards are focused on London, but as everyone is saying the regions are just as important, surely they deserve to be treated as such?


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm not necessarily convinced that the regions do much for theatre; outside of London, there are very few regional centres of excellence - Chichester Festival, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, Bristol Old Vic, Everyman in Liverpool, and that's about it. There are something like three main theatres in Birmingham, and at any time at least one of them is dark and the other two are likely to be showing touring dross (i.e. musical revivals like Grease).

    By the way, I wonder if the organisers of the Oliviers could do themselves a favour next year and invite fewer D-list and lower "stars", regardless of whether they've appeared in a touring version of Calendar Girls or similar? Today's coverage has been about "brave Amanda Holden" rather than celebrating the achievements of the magnificent "After the Dance" or Roger Allam's fabulous Falstaff.

  • Comment number 2.

    I can see nothing in Belfast bar the Lyric Theatre- where, I believe, Kenneth Branagh learnt his craft. Unfortunately, the Lyric isn't running anything for young actors as far as I can see yet; it’s undergoing refurbishment, I think.

    I trained in drama for a while but I don't know if it was serious or just a way to let off steam... I used to have to down to Monaghan on a Saturday morning, and it was fun a lot of the time... sadly, that company has shut down now as there wasn't enough money coming in to fund it.

    I don't see much in N. Ireland for young actors now, but if we had something... but my belief has always been that if you desire to make something of yourself, no matter what profession, you’ve got to go to London and seek your chance and fortune there.

  • Comment number 3.

    This News is mortal to the Work Place, look down and see what the Bank is doing.


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