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The 20th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards: a triumph of the offbeat, the unexpected, the unusual

Our chief critic reflects on the Awards the morning after the Concert

The cast of Come From Away
© Stephen Wright Photography

If I were drawing one particular trend from the winners in this year's WhatsOnStage Awards (thank you to everyone who voted) it's the triumph of the offbeat, the unexpected, the unusual. Take & Juliet, the night's big winner, with six awards. On paper, the concept sounds terrible: a rewriting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet where Juliet survives, heads off to Paris with her girlfriends and finds self-fulfilment. All set to the songs of Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin, which include "I Kissed a Girl", "Oops!… I Did It Again" and "It's My Life". On stage – with a standout lead performance from Miriam-Teak Lee – it is warm-hearted and gloriously engaging.

Or take the best musical winner Come From Away, an unlikely celebration of human goodness in the wake of tragedy, a hymn to the power of community when the inhabitants of the Canadian island of Newfoundland took in 38 planeloads of passengers after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre.

As exhibit three, look at the winner of the BBC Radio 2 Audience Award for Best Musical, which went to Six the Musical, a labour of love by its creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss which has morphed from creating to a sensation on the Edinburgh Fringe to opening on Broadway, without ever losing its originality or essence of empowerment – and fun.

Exhibit four is Lolita Chakrabarti's adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which those of us in London are waiting to see. This new play from the Sheffield Crucible – the first non-London venue to win the Best New Play award – seemed an impossibility: the story of a boy in a boat with a tiger was hard enough to imagine let alone to stage. But Max Webster's production was an instant sensation, once again affirming humane values. It was also, in the words of WhatsOnStage's five-star review, "a spectacular on-stage experience" and in the words of The Guardian, "a triumph of transformative stagecraft" which is why it is so wonderful that it has won an award.

These are all shows that assert theatre's power to translate, transport and transform. They have a vision that embraces the audience – and the audience has responded by voting for their success in our awards.

Even in the revival categories that remains true. Jamie Lloyd's productions of both the musical Evita and Harold Pinter's Betrayal took familiar – and much admired – texts and elevated them by the power of his rethinking. Matthew Warchus did the same with Present Laughter; I've seen countless productions of this Noël Coward play but this production starring Andrew Scott was the first one that actually made me think it was relevant. And funny.

What such choices go to show is that audiences are brave, bold and watching carefully. We are not cynical or complacent. We want a good night out – we are spending a lot of money, very often. And we want to be entertained, provoked, made to think. Even if we are at a musical.

The WhatsOnStage Awards are, in their 20th year, a gratifying and celebratory warning against complacency and cynicism. Excellence and belief do rise.

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