The Olivier Awards are the Oscars of the British theatre industry. They're now in their 35th year and there's a new drive to inject more glamour. So the winners will be announced tonight in a star-studded, red-carpet ceremony at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal, with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton handing out the solid bronze statuettes of Sir Larry. (The ceremony will be broadcast live on Radio 2 and on BBC digital TV.)
The ceremony's declared intent is to trumpet the outstanding talent on show in the world capital of theatre. And Theatreland can be forgiven a bit of self-congratulatory razzle-dazzle: 14 million people saw shows in the West End in 2010, handing over £500m at the box office, and those figures were bettered only in 2009.
This year's most eye-catching potential winners include Bruce Norris's bold, Chicago-set race-relations comedy Clybourne Park. The Royal Court Theatre, where that premiered, is way out in front of its peers, with multiple Best New Play nominations. Also popular with the judges is the Judy Garland bio-drama End of the Rainbow, which has proved to be a small but perfectly formed triumph at Trafalgar Studios. Storming Shakespearean performances are jostling for supremacy in the Best Actor category, including Derek Jacobi's Lear vs Rory Kinnear's Hamlet.
The awards are run by the Society of London Theatre (Solt). The judging panels are made up of selected industry professionals and members of the public. A common misconception is that any production, nationwide, can be nominated. Actually, only Solt members are eligible. That means 50-odd major venues generally categorised as West End (including the grant-aided National, Barbican and Royal Court Downstairs), plus 15 esteemed affiliate members (such as the Almeida).
Here are my thoughts about the nominations for the major theatre awards (we've omitted the dance, opera and more technical categories): who's in the running, who should win and, finally, who I think will exit, stage left, with the gongs.
Roger Allam – Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Derek Jacobi – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Rory Kinnear – Hamlet, National Theatre (Olivier) Mark Rylance – La Bète, Comedy Theatre David Suchet – All My Sons, Apollo
I'll wager the judging panel had a tussle deciding the top dog, with Derek Jacobi nominated for his King Lear and Rory Kinnear for his Hamlet. Kinnear should win for his startlingly intelligent new angles on the Prince. Jacobi was less groundbreaking but, as a national treasure on vintage form, the crown may go to him. He also has to fend off Roger Allam's roguish Falstaff and, more seriously, David Suchet's chortling yet chilling Joe Keller from Arthur Miller's All My Sons.
Bassett's tip Derek Jacobi
Tracie Bennett – End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios Nancy Carroll – After the Dance, National Theatre (Lyttelton) Tamsin Greig – The Little Dog Laughed, Garrick Theatre Sophie Thompson – Clybourne Park, Royal Court
I say give the prize to Nancy Carroll, quietly heartbreaking in After the Dance, Rattigan's portrait of disappointed Bright Young Things. Subtle performances can get nudged out in showbiz awards, though. Sophie Thompson is a tad too caricatured as a fussed housewife in Clybourne Park. Tamsin Greig (a 2007 Olivier winner) was hilarious, yet hardly stretched as the satirised Hollywood agent in The Little Dog Laughed. I have to confess that I've not caught up with Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow – partly because the celeb's meltdown is such a familiar saga I feel I've seen it already. But apparently she's scintillating.
Bassett's tip Nancy Carroll
Best Supporting Actor
James Laurenson – Hamlet, National Theatre (Olivier) Hilton McRae – End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios Lee Ross – Birdsong, Comedy Theatre Adrian Scarborough – After the Dance, National Theatre (Lyttelton)
Lee Ross deserves an Olivier for his touching performance in the otherwise woefully substandard Birdsong. Adrian Scarborough was also superb in After the Dance as the boozy interwar freeloader John. Hilton McRae is in the running too, wry yet loving as Judy Garland's accompanist in End of the Rainbow. Though winningly unmelodramatic, James Laurenson surely wasn't so outstanding as Old Hamlet's ghost.
Bassett's tip Lee Ross
Best Supporting Actress
Sarah Goldberg – Clybourne Park, Royal Court Anastasia Hille – The Master Builder, Almeida Gina McKee – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Rachael Stirling – An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville Theatre Michelle Terry – Tribes, Royal Court
Michelle Terry really ought to land this. She was understated but unforgettable as Sylvia in Tribes: a young woman from the deaf community who exudes self-assurance until grilled by her boyfriend's family. Rachael Stirling's turn in Wilde's An Ideal Husband was more glam. However, I find her costume-drama acting self-consciously old school. Gina McKee, though a cold, steely Goneril, wasn't quite at her mesmerising best in King Lear. As for the race-relations comedy Clybourne Park, didn't Lorna Brown deserve a nomination as much as Sarah Goldberg?
Bassett's tip Michelle Terry
Best New Play
Clybourne Park – Bruce Norris, Royal Court End of the Rainbow – Peter Quilter, Trafalgar Studios 1 Sucker Punch by Roy Williams, Royal Court The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane, Garrick Theatre Tribes – Nina Raine, Royal Court
Clybourne Park seems a sure-fire winner. It already has trophies from the Critics' Circle Awards and the South Bank Show Awards. Bruce Norris's real-estate drama is eagle-eyed and excruciatingly funny in its depiction of white and black folks trying to get along yet harbouring prejudices. Then again, maybe Tribes should be rewarded as the most moving and illuminating mainstream play about deaf people since Children of a Lesser God. I suspect Sucker Punch, Roy Williams's boxing-ring play, won't meet the weight. And End of the Rainbow? Coulda been a contender?
Bassett's tip Clybourne Park
After the Dance – National Theatre (Lyttelton) All My Sons – Apollo Theatre King Lear – Donmar Warehouse When We Are Married – Garrick Theatre
Michael Grandage's King Lear was admirable, not thrilling. It got most things right, yet wasn't revelatory. Thea Sharrock's ensemble was mostly, if not all, exquisite in After the Dance. I suspect one of those two will win. Still, my favourite was Howard Davies's revival of All My Sons, with great leading performances (Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker).
Bassett's tip All My Sons
Best New Musical
Fela! – National Theatre (Olivier) Legally Blonde – Savoy Theatre Love Never Dies – Adelphi Theatre Love Story – Duchess Theatre
Love Story and Fela! have been overrated; I could have done without Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies; but Sheridan Smith was bubbly fun in Legally Blonde. What's missing, due to the Oliviers' London bias, is the RSC's fabulous adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda. That's got to transfer.
Bassett's tip Legally Blonde
Dominic Cooke – Clybourne Park, Royal Court Howard Davies – The White Guard, National Theatre (Lyttelton) Michael Grandage – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Thea Sharrock – After the Dance, National Theatre (Lyttelton)
If Howard Davies's All My Sons doesn't get the Best Revival Award, then he deserves the laurels for Best Director. He's nominated in this category for his fine-tuned, intimate yet epic staging of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard. This was a tragicomic masterpiece, like Chekhov crossed with War and Peace, set in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Davies might, nonetheless, lose out to Dominic Cooke, Michael Grandage or Thea Sharrock.
Bassett's tip Howard Davies
Best XL Video Award for Best Design
Design for Living designed by Lez Brotherston, Old Vic Earthquakes in London designed by Miriam Buether, National Theatre (Cottesloe) Love Never Dies designed by Bob Crowley, Adelphi Theatre The White Guard designed by Bunny Christie, National Theatre (Lyttelton)
Miriam Buether is almost always brilliant. For Earthquakes in London she thrillingly souped up Mike Bartlett's environmental drama, with a walkway snaking through the audience and encircling video projections of flowing street scenes. Love Never Dies was lavishly vulgar. Design for Living predictably offered Noël Coward period chic. The Oliviers can't embrace all the exhilarating, found-space theatre that's now happening. So I'll raise a glass to the weird and wonderful You Me Bum Bum Train, where intrepid promenaders got to crawl through a maze of tunnels in an abandoned East End office block.
Bassett's tip Miriam Buether
Beauty and the Beast – Cottesloe Theatre Ghost Stories – Duke of York's Theatre Potted Panto – Vaudeville Theatre The Railway Children – Waterloo Station Theatre
This is a curious category. Most are kids' shows. I missed Potted Panto, but I did catch Katie Mitchell's Beauty and the Beast with my nephew. Unfortunately, he was bored, either because Mitchell kept interrupting the story or because the Beast's castle had seemingly been furnished by Habitat. I took a gothic horror fan along with me to Ghost Stories, only he deemed it disappointingly clichéd. But hey, hats off to The Railway Children, charmingly staged on a spare platform at Waterloo Station: surely not a Solt theatre but with real chuffing steam train.
Bassett's tip The Railway Children
Future stars: Who are the Olivier winners of tomorrow?
Actor Bertie Carvel
Though the RSC's musical Matilda hasn't transferred to London yet, Carvel is surely going to be having a ball when it does. He is hideously funny in drag as Roald Dahl's monstrous headmistress, Trunchball. The former shotputter and hunchbacked ogress sneers, snuffs the air and spins disobedient brats by their pigtails. Think Richard III crossed with Hannibal Lecter, only hilarious.
Actress Bryony Hannah
Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss were billed as the stellar crowd-pullers when Lillian Hellman's 1930s American classic, The Children's Hour, opened at the Comedy Theatre in February. The great discovery, however, was Bryony Hannah, who'll surely feature in the next round of Olivier nominations. She slipped by unnoticed in 2010 (disguised as a boy in Earthquakes in London), but she's enthrallingly scary as the twitchy, screwed-up schoolgirl Mary who devastates her teachers' lives with her compulsive lies.
Playwright Lynn Nottage
American dramatist Lynn Nottage deserved but didn't get Olivier nominated this year for Ruined, which premiered at the Almeida and featured a superb central performance by Jenny Jules. With a touch of Mother Courage, but set in a brothel in the atrocity-riven Congo, Ruined is a humorous, deeply humane and gritty portrait of what some women have to do to survive.
Director Daniel Evans
Daniel Evans is well known as an actor in plays and musicals, but he's now emerging as an astonishingly talented stage director as well. Having recently taken over as the artistic director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, he staged a fiercely assured, large-scale production of An Enemy of the People. Ibsen's damning, 1880s exposé of financial corruption starred Antony Sher on vibrant top form.
Artistic Director Edward Hall
Another new artistic director is also on a winning streak. Hampstead Theatre was ailing after a string of flops. Then Edward Hall (son of Peter) took charge a year ago. Nina Raine's NHS drama, Tiger Country, has just proved to be a box-office hit, and tickets for Mike Leigh's Ecstasy are selling like hot cakes.
Olivier Awards, Radio 2, 5.30pm; and live on the BBC TV red button service
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