Tony Time
On Broadway, the entire theatre year is built around one key event: the annual presentation in June of the Antoinette Perry Awards - or Tonys, as they are better known. In order to be eligible for consideration, a production must open by the beginning of May. The Broadway season therefore becomes defined by the Tony Awards - literally so, in as much as the season is perceived as running from the previous year's cut-off date to the closing date for nominations for the current year - but also because, in the mad rush created by this arbitrarily imposed date, shows open back-to-back to meet it. And the commercial boost that a Tony win usually gives its recipients can mean the difference between success and failure. (Every year on Broadway there's a dismal spectacle of a number of shows closing immediately after the nominations, where failure to secure key mentions dooms a show instantly, and then immediately again after the awards, where producers holding out for the hope of a Tony score shut up shop if they don't succeed).

Larrys for Luvvies
The West End equivalent, the Laurence Olivier Awards (or Larrys, as some people attempt to call them, trying to emulate the Tonys) do not carry quite so much clout, status or power. That's partly because the commercial theatre is generally far healthier in London to begin with, and therefore doesn't rely on the one big marketing, nationally televised event like the Tonys to define it. But then nothing defines a theatre season here at all, beyond the one of the calendar year.

Nor, sadly, have the Oliviers ever managed to establish anything like the kind of prestige that’s attached to the Tonys. Originally set up in 1976 by the then Society of West End Theatres (now Society of London Theatres), they first wore the producing body’s unappetising acronym to be known as the SWET Awards. In 1984, they took the name of the man who was then arguably England's most celebrated stage actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, and their status improved a bit. But in the last few years, SOLT have moved them downmarket again, by replacing the previous Sunday evening awards ceremony, followed by a glamorous sit-down dinner at Grosvenor House in Park Lane, with an on-the-hop weekday lunchtime ceremony, this year at the Lyceum Theatre on 23 February, followed by a stand-up buffet lunch. Though the ceremony is recorded for broadcast, it isn't relayed live, or with anything like the same sense of importance of the Tonys.

Judge or Jury?
The one thing that has always distinguished the Olivier Awards from others is the fact that members of the public uniquely join a so-called expert panel to decide the nominations and the winners. This public jury are appointed by SOLT after submitting a sample review and attending an interview panel. But this improbable group - whom the Daily Mail's Michael Coveney has characterised as "a few old showbiz lags and free ticket wallahs nobody has ever heard of who trade the odd night in front of the telly for one in the theatre" - prove to be unaccountable for their sometimes perverse decisions and are anonymous in making them.

Keeping Up Standards
At least the Evening Standard Drama Awards, presented by the London daily paper of the same name in November every year, use a small group of professional theatre critics, whose job it is to go to the theatre every night and make professional judgements upon what they see. And the Standard Awards also offer the real, smoky theatrical glamour of an afternoon lunchtime ceremony at the Savoy Hotel.

Meanwhile, the lower key Critic's Circle Awards, announced this week (Thursday, 15 February) at the Old Vic, also emerge from the considered opinions of a critical coven. As the Mail’s Coveney points out, "The good thing is that the critics provide concrete and detailed reasons why each recipient has won, something which always seems to elude the starrier donors at the Standard or Olivier presentations."

Does It Matter?
Like 'em or loathe 'em, everyone enjoys winning an award. In a notoriously insecure profession, the approval of critics and judging panels, whoever they are, make actors and other creators feel good about themselves.

But, in the grand scheme of things, awards have little real commercial importance, or long-lasting value. Can you remember who won last year, let alone who was nominated? No, neither can I. But it was fun at the time to speculate on who should win, and who would win (as ever, often very different things). So join in the game, and cast your votes now!

For the latest results in our 2001 online Olivier poll and to vote for who you should win across any of the 20 different categories – from Best Actress to Best New Musical - click here.