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Whatsonstage Awards presentations parallel the ascendancy of British theatre

Wicked London Willemijn Verkaik Photo by Matt Crockett
Wicked London Willemijn Verkaik Photo by Matt Crockett

I’ve sat through eight Whatsonstage Awards Concerts and Presentations (they never, ever officially use the word ‘ceremony’) including this one, and it’s been a privilege to see it grow and grow. Previous presentations were, looking back, comparatively painful, albeit with the benefit of hindsight: projections didn’t function properly, such that a winner would be written large on the screen before the hosts had a chance to finish reading out the nominations. In fact, in the early days, the nominations weren’t even read out at all, which I always found slightly bizarre. It has also become gradually more glitzy and glamorous, with a casually dressed James Corden, picking up an award in 2012 for Best Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors, looking out at the audience and declaring that he “did not get the memo” about the smarter dress code.

It remains a tad disappointing that the ‘Wossies’ still do not have (in line with the Olivier Awards) a category for Best Musical Director. I read with interest that the Tony Awards did once have a category called ‘Best Conductor and Musical Director’, but this was discontinued in 1964, so Shephard Coleman (1924-1998) remains the winner, for conducting Hello, Dolly!, in perpetuity. But, as evidenced by the conducting talent of Alex Parker and, later, for ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ from Half A Sixpence, Graham Hurman (that show’s resident musical director), leading a 14-strong band, without MDs, musicals simply do not happen.

Emma Williams, in accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, went even further, paying tribute to backstage staff such as stage managers, wardrobe supervisors, wig and make-up artists and dressers. I note, for example, the Unsung Hero award category for The Stage Awards, which this year when to Old Vic stage door manager Ned Seago, though it may be rather more difficult for awards decided by online ballot to draw up a truly egalitarian shortlist of such vital theatre personnel. There was, I hasten to add, one category not subject to the online ballot, for what the presentation’s programme called the Equity Award for Services to Theatre, but ended up being called the Equity Award for Lifetime Achievement (So Far), given to Sir Cameron Mackintosh. I have no qualms with Mackintosh being bestowed with such an award, particularly in his fiftieth year as a theatre producer, though it would have been nice to have better understood how the award is decided, and precisely by whom.

A previous member of staff at Whatsonstage, who shall remain nameless expressed puzzlement to me in conversation, because of a joint award given in the Best New Dance Production category at the 2015 Olivier Awards. Less than two years later, the Wossies found themselves doing something similar, giving a joint award in the category of Best West End Show, a category strictly limited to long-running shows, awarded to both Les Miserables and Wicked.

As has been widely reported, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two pretty much cleaned up in various categories at this year’s Wossies. The biggest cheers of the night were reserved, aside from the Equity Award given to Sir Cameron, for Best Actress in a Play, Amber Riley (Dreamgirls) and Best Actor in a Play, Charlie Stemp (Half A Sixpence). Riley had a rough Christmas and New Year, having contracted pneumonia; her duet with Liisi LaFontaine that closed the first half of the presentation saw her vocals in finer shape than ever. Stemp paid tribute to many people, but reserved his heartiest thanks to his mother Lianne for her unwavering support; having sat almost directly behind her in the audience at a performance of Half A Sixpence I can testify first-hand that she not only fully supports Charlie but every single person in that large cast.

This year’s hosts, Simon Lipkin and Vicki Stone, did a sterling job, and even themselves performed musical numbers. One of these was a spoof cast announcement, in which Neil and Christine Hamilton were to star in the London production of the Broadway musical that bears their surname. The other one served partly as a tongue-in- cheek summary of key events in the London theatre scene over the past year, and partly as a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter-song, in which, quite impressively, every single nominated performer was name-dropped. Elsewhere, the Trump Administration took yet another bashing from the entertainment industry, firstly by Trevor Dion Nicholas (Aladdin) picking up Best Supporting Actor in a Musical emphasising diversity, and then by John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two) picking up Best Director, who drew parallels between the President and Voldemort.

All things considered, there were a lot of worthy winners amongst the nominees, whether they were presented with an award or not. I genuinely didn’t disagree with any of the awards given out, even when I had voted for someone else in that category. Lord Fellowes, collecting the Best New Musical award on behalf of School of Rock, had it right when he remarked that the theatre industry is very strong. I’d say the ever increasing slickness and professionalism of the Whatsonstage Awards presentations parallel the continuing ascendancy of British theatre.

By Chris Omaweng

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