An intimate revival of the musical Cabaret, which transformed London’s Playhouse theatre into the debauched Kit Kat Club of Weimar Berlin, has triumphed at this year’s Olivier awards.
The production won in seven categories at the ceremony, which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Sunday for the first time in three years and hosted by comedian Jason Manford. Covid forced the cancellation of the last two annual awards shows, though a prerecorded virtual ceremony served as a stopgap in autumn 2020.
Cabaret took all four awards for actors in a musical: Eddie Redmayne (as the Kit Kat’s grotesque ringleader, the Emcee) and Jessie Buckley (as singer Sally Bowles) in their leading roles, and Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy as supporting characters whose romance is imperilled by the rise of nazism. Rebecca Frecknall was named best director, and Cabaret also took the awards for best musical revival and best sound design (for Nick Lidster).
Redmayne, who previously played the Emcee in an Edinburgh fringe production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical in 2001, returned to the West End for the first time in 10 years to reprise the role. It brings him his second Olivier award: he won in 2010 for playing the assistant to painter Mark Rothko in the play Red. Redmayne paid tribute to Buckley, saying he would “never have gone on this ride” without her. When Buckley took the stage to collect her award she joked that it was “like my worst nightmare and my biggest dream all at once.”
The winners of the Olivier awards, overseen by the Society of London Theatre, are chosen by a team of industry figures, stage luminaries and theatre-loving members of the public. The Oliviers honour London productions, but this year’s second biggest winner, Life of Pi, is a success story that began in Sheffield. Lolita Chakrabarti’s puppet-powered adaptation of Yann Martel’s much-loved novel opened at the city’s Crucible theatre in 2019 and its West End transfer was, like many productions, severely delayed by the pandemic.
Life of Pi won five awards including best new play, best lighting design (Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding) and best set design (Tim Hatley for the design and Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell for the puppets). Hiran Abeysekera was named best actor for his portrayal of the shipwrecked teenager Pi, and the best supporting actor prize was shared by seven actors who play the tiger in the show: one gives the creature a voice, and three pairs of performers each represent its head, heart and hind.
Manford presided over a joyous ceremony with plenty of gags. Referring to the slap that Will Smith gave presenter Chris Rock at the Oscars, after a joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith, Manford said: “I will very much be keeping your wives’ names out of my chuffing mouth … this is an evening for back-slapping not face-slapping!” Later he joked about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s declaration that he would risk arrest to open his theatre during the shutdown, calling the composer “the Che Guevara of the West End”.
Many speeches were marked by the sense of joy in a community coming together again after the prolonged instability and disruption caused by Covid. The actor Lesley Manville also introduced a special performance in solidarity with the people of Ukraine during what she called a time of “unbearable suffering” after the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian mezzo soprano Kseniia Nikolaieva, whose family are still in her home land, performed the country’s national anthem. In his speech, Elliot Levey paid tribute to his late Ukrainian grandfather, who fled Kyiv many years ago after his brothers were killed in a pogrom, and Levey criticised the “incompetence and hostility” of the UK’s current scheme for hosting Ukrainians.
The prize for best entertainment or comedy play was taken by Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of), a rambunctious, all-female riff on Jane Austen’s novel first staged at Glasgow’s tiny Tron theatre in 2018. Despite rave reviews, its West End run was cut short in February after Covid restrictions led to plummeting audience numbers and losses estimated at up to £25,000 a week. Back to the Future: The Musical, whose 2020 run in Manchester ended early due to Covid before it transferred to London’s Adelphi theatre, was named best new musical.
The award for best revival of a play went to a canny production of Nick Payne’s two-hander Constellations, in which four pairs of actors took turns to play a couple whose relationship is set against the backdrop of quantum multiverse theory. Directed by Michael Longhurst, the Donmar Warehouse production was presented at the Vaudeville theatre while the Donmar underwent renovation works. For her performance in Constellations, Sheila Atim won best actress. It is her second Olivier award; she also took best actress in a supporting role in a musical for Girl from the North Country in 2018. Atim said the play was about “fighting adversity together” and that “we all did that” during the pandemic. She thanked her co-star Ivanno Jeremiah and also savoured the fact that, in the Donmar’s diverse approach to casting for Constellations, her role was subsequently played by a man, Omari Douglas, when he appeared opposite Russell Tovey later on in the run.
The National Theatre’s production of Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play The Normal Heart, about the 1980s Aids crisis in New York, had nominations for best revival and four of its actors. Liz Carr won for her performance as a character based on Dr Linda Laubenstein, a physician and pioneering HIV/Aids researcher. Carr thanked the National Theatre for giving a disabled actor the chance to play the role while stressing that “it shouldn’t be a chance, it should be a right”. She wore a dress decorated with some of her character’s lines from the play and said The Normal Heart combined her twin interests in art and activism and that its story resonated amid a global health crisis and the response of an “apathetic” government. The award for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre went to the Bush theatre’s Old Bridge, a play by Igor Memic set around his home town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In a bumper year for escapist musical spectaculars, a lavish production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – which broke box-office records at the Barbican – won one award, for best theatre choreographer, from a total of nine nominations. Anything Goes received a five-star review from the Guardian, as did the blockbuster Disney musical Frozen, which reopened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after a £60m renovation. Frozen had four nominations but none resulted in a win. Moulin Rouge! The Musical won for its sumptuous costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical had four nominations, with orchestrator Simon Hale winning in his category. The ceremony was punctuated with performances from nominated musicals and ended with a tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim.
The Royal Opera House was recognised for Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra’s Bajazet (outstanding achievement in opera) and for Jenůfa, directed by Claus Guth (best new opera production), as well as for best family show for Wolf Witch Giant Fairy, a folk opera created with the company Little Bulb in the ROH’s Linbury theatre. Both dance awards went to productions at Sadler’s Wells: Revisor, Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s show based on Nikolai Gogol’s play The Government Inspector, was named best new dance production, while Jolly Folly, an ode to silent movies choreographed by rising star Arielle Smith for English National Ballet, won outstanding achievement in dance.
Special recognition awards were given to five individuals this year to recognise their outstanding contributions to the theatre industry. They went to Lisa Burger, executive director and joint chief executive of the National Theatre (who was also recently made a CBE); the designer Bob King, who has created artwork and advertising campaigns for many major West End shows; Gloria Louis, the inclusion and diversity lead for Delfont Mackintosh Theatres; philanthropist Susie Sainsbury; and Sylvia Young, who founded her drama school 50 years ago. Its alumni include singers Amy Winehouse and Dua Lipa, actors Daniel Kaluuya and Keeley Hawes, and past Olivier winner Billie Piper.