Theatre: Good, better or best?

When is a play a play, and is a comedy a play or not? Is a new play the same as a lost or unperformed one? What's the difference between best opera and outstanding achievement in opera? It appears that the organisers of the prestigious Olivier awards are not so sure...

No question: when it comes to awards, I know what I'm talking about. Hushed tones of, how shall I put this, reverence, are adopted by anyone who saw my pulse-quickening stage debut in Aladdin at the Coombehurst preparatory school. Unaccountably, my cutting-edge interpretation was never filmed, thus rendering me ineligible for an Oscar. But the headmistress (enlightened soul) did rush out and buy a Drama Cup, so impressed was she by my almost legendary Widow Twankey...

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the Olivier Awards are upon us once again. I could bang on about the idiocy of rating one performance over another, but winners seldom complain and more importantly, the industry and audiences love the whole shebang. However, this year's nominations do beg a few questions, most of which are about categorisation.

Take Best New Musical. The first three nominees - Beauty and the Beast, Enter the Guardsman, The Fix - present no problems, but the fourth, Lady in the Dark, is hardly new: it premiered on Broadway in 1941. Does that mean that the first performance of a unperformed play by, say, Bernard Shaw would be eligible for Best New Play? I doubt it. And don't imagine that the citation has anything to do with its production, because that's dealt with under Outstanding Musical Production (nominees, Chicago, Damn Yankees and Kiss Me Kate).

There's similar confusion elsewhere. The Royal Opera House's Palestrina is up for Best Opera Production. Fine, but the creative team are up for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. Er, doesn't that amount to about the same thing? The Mark Morris Dance Group should win for the ravishing L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato but Morris is also up for his choreography of the same piece, which strikes me as absurd. Isn't Morris's genius recognised in the first category?

Maybe these quibbles are semantic but just what does Best New Play mean? Does it mean Best Night Out at a Play or Best Writing? If the latter, can anyone account for the exclusion of Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart, which won raves in every single publication except the News of the World? And what of the bizarre "also-ran" category of Best New Comedy. Can't a comedy be up for Best Play?

Contrary to popular belief, the likes of me have nothing to do with all this. Critics don't vote. The 90-odd members of the Society of London Theatres - the trade association for managers and producers - puts forward nominations alongside the Olivier panel - five "professionals" from the entertainment business and four members of the public. It is the panel that makes the final judgement, but without expert advice, what are these awards but well-intentioned conflated committee decisions?

The worst victims of this are subtle, unflashy performers. Peter Hall's Old Vic season may not have been an unalloyed triumph, but show after show featured quietly superb supporting performances. They were simply too good. To win awards you have to be flashy. The shining exception is Judi Dench's sublime performance in Amy's View (see picture). Yes, I know she won two Oliviers last time, but if this doesn't win her another, the entire ceremony will be discredited.

The Olivier Awards will be announced on 16 Feb

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