As Helen Mirren and Kristin Scott Thomas settle into their seats at the Royal Opera House in London tonight, they might look warily over their shoulders, for trouble is afoot at theatreland's prestigious Olivier awards.
The casts and producers of smaller shows are angered by changes to the judging panel that they fear will sideline them in favour of the West End's commercial goliaths.
Critics are questioning the likely outcome of tonight's ceremony, hosted by Sheridan Smith and Hugh Bonneville, and the first in a decade to be televised. Low-budget productions have traditionally fared well at the Oliviers – most spectacularly so three years ago when favourites Jerusalem and Enron were overtaken in the race for the coveted Best New Play award by Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, about the last hours of Martin Luther King.
This year, however, the jury of nine has been dramatically expanded to include 153 theatre owners and producers, prompting accusations that judges will favour their own productions and also lobby their friends.
Mark Rubinstein, president of the Society of London Theatre, said: "There's no doubt that people will vote for their own shows, but I think that will be blended out."
Mark Shenton, theatre critic of The Stage, cautioned that although some changes were welcome – such as returning the Oliviers to television – the independence of the judging panel had been compromised. "The awards will be inevitably weighted more towards commercially stronger shows over artistically strong ones," he said.
Mirren is among the favourites to secure the Best Actress award for her latest turn as the Queen in The Audience, which is also up for Best Play and Best Director (Stephen Daldry). She is up against Scott Thomas in Old Times, Billie Piper in The Effect and Hattie Morahan, for her Nora in A Doll's House, which has already won Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards.
Theatre commentators warned that the jury changes mean not everyone in the voting pool will have seen all of the shows they vote on.
Terri Paddock, the managing director of Whatsonstage.com, which runs its own awards show based on votes from the public, predicted that there will now be fewer opportunities for surprise winners.
"Commercial West End shows were always the poorer cousin in the Olivier awards," she said. "That's going to change."
Mr Rubinstein defended the changes, saying that they brought the Oliviers into line with other major awards such as the Baftas, the New York-based Tonys and Hollywood's Oscars. He said the body wanted "the expertise" that would come from letting each of the society's members vote.
"Our advice was that people shouldn't vote in categories where they haven't seen all of the nominees," he said, adding that members had abstained in places.
The nominees for Best Actor are James McAvoy for Macbeth, Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss, Luke Treadaway in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Rylance for Twelfth Night, and Rafe Spall for Constellations.
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