The WhatsOnStage Awards show how all types of theatre can play an important role in our lives
WhatsOnStage's chief critic reflects on what this year's winners list can tell us
There are lots of things to be said against celebrity casting. And I've said quite a few of them in my time. But when I look at the excellent results of the 19th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards, you can also see the way that a well-cast star can throw light on excellent plays and productions – and the way in which their commitment to the stage keeps theatre vibrant and exciting.
It is thrilling that Adam Penford's adventurous artistic directorship at the Nottingham Playhouse is being rewarded by two wins for The Madness of George III, as Best Play Revival, and for the wonderful Adrian Scarborough (see my previous blog on the joy of great character actors) as Best Supporting Actor in a Play. It probably helped that the popular Mark Gatiss was cast in the leading role, but that wouldn't have counted for anything unless the production itself had been excellent.
(On which subject, hats off to Penford for coming up with the idea of casting Alex Kingston in a new gender-swapped version of An Enemy of the People in September. It's a perfect role for her in a really pertinent play.)
Aidan Turner could have played it safe in a nice romantic comedy, but he took a much bolder choice
The same goes for Aidan Turner, using his wattage to introduce audiences to the wild and whirring world of Martin McDonagh in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and winning the Best Actor in a Play prize for his efforts. He could have played it safe in a nice romantic comedy, but he took a much bolder choice in one of the most energising and energetic productions of last year, staged as part of the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward Theatre.
Grandage, of course, is a man who knows a thing or two about making theatre that is both popular and profound. He is the recipient of the Equity Award for Services to Theatre (the only WhatsOnStage award not voted for by the public) not only for his work as a director, but also his commitment to accessible ticket prices and MGCfutures which supports emerging theatre makers. In this context, it's worth noting that a high proportion of the seats for The Lieutenant were on sale for £10 each.
It's also interesting that so many of the winners were transmitted to the widest possible audience by the NT Live cinema
In an awards ceremony voted for by theatregoers, such a commitment to accessibility is important. It's also interesting that so many of the winners were transmitted to the widest possible audience by the NT Live cinema programme – which means, among other things, that people got a chance to see Sophie Okonedo's devastatingly original performance in Antony and Cleopatra (Best Actress).
As usual, the awards reveal that theatregoers very often love a critical hit. The success of Hamilton, and of The Inheritance reflects the way in which both shows, in their different ways, have swept all before them in terms of acclaim, prizes and audience reaction. The two prizes taken by Stephen Sondheim's Company – Best Director for Marianne Elliott and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for Patti LuPone – register both the radical nature of that show's rethinking and also an appreciation of a genuine musical star, who can wring meaning from every line she sings.
And how brilliant that voters recognised the courage and excellence of the revival of Spring Awakening at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, not to mention the liveliness of Six the Musical, many people's favourite evening out last year.
That's the thing about theatre. It doesn't always have to challenge. In showing their appreciation for the pleasure and entertainment of a good night out, and lavishing prizes on Heathers the Musical and Little Shop of Horrors, at Regent's Park, the WhatsOnStage voters are recognising that the colourful and purely enjoyable should win prizes too. These awards are, as always, a sign of the importance of the role that all types of theatre can play in our lives.