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Michael Coveney: Awards spring special surprises as the audience wins all round

Barry Humphries collected the Award for Best Solo Performance
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Barry Humphries came straight to the point on winning the best solo performance award: "You have no-one else you have to thank". And he applauded the choice of charity this year, the Big Issue Foundation, saying that there was a Romanian lady selling the magazine outside his local Waitrose who curses anyone who doesn't buy it.

I didn't feel threatened when I bought a few raffle tickets from our Big Issue friends in the Prince of Wales last night, but I would have bought a few more if I'd known there was a possibility of Eastern European displeasure lurking behind those sunny grins and red T-shirts... everyone seemed to be in such a good mood, and this mood generated the joyful explosions and unexpected elements in the proceedings.

Such as the musical director Tom Deering stepping forward to pick up a piece of cake from co-host Mel Giedroyc's Great British Bake-Off trolley and stepping right off the edge of the stage - into the orchestra pit, in fact. At first we thought it was a gag. After all, David Walliams had come on to receive his best supporting actor award (for his much admired Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream) accompanied by Ashleigh and Pudsey, the dog act which won Britain's Got Talent two years ago.

The snogging we take for granted, of course, and no-one was remotely surprised to see charming Gavin Creel (best actor in a musical for The Book of Mormon) climb all over co-host Rufus Hound and suck out his teeth. But we were worried about Tom. Phew, what a relief: after a short hiatus, he climbed back onto the stage and picked up his baton, unharmed and unfazed.

Hound and Mel Giedroyc were a dream team pair of hosts, funny and sharp and energetic for the full three hours. They led a big ovation for Rupert Grint, runaway winner in the newcomer category for Mojo, even though Hound suggested he was the only person on the stage anyone had ever heard of; which seemed a little harsh on Grint's Harry Potter mate Daniel Radcliffe very sweetly accepting his best actor award for The Cripple of Inishmaan in the all-conquering Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward.

Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint celebrating their award wins
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Helen Mirren wasn't with us to receive the best actress award for The Audience, but she sent a lovely message on film and her glorious colleague, Haydn Gwynne (best supporting actress in the same play), more than made up for her absence with two gracious speeches and a vintage silk and lace dress that glowed deep purple under the lights.

Perhaps what made the evening so special for WhatsOnStage was not just welcoming the winners, but also the public who voted for them and the artists nominated in all the categories who acknowledged that public's enthusiasm and good taste by turning up in the first place. So, our VIP reception in the Bernard Delfont stalls bar was graced by two absolute stunners: Cush Jumbo (solo nominee for Josephine & I at the Bush) and Leigh Zimmerman (best supporting actress nominee in a musical, A Chorus Line) who stepped up anyway to receive the best ensemble award for the same show.

No less welcome were such superb nominated actors as Daniel Mays (Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar, and Mojo), Gillian Hanna for The Cripple of Inishmaan, Cynthia Erivo - who kicked off the show with a brilliant song from Dreamgirls - and Rosalie Craig, best musical actress nominees alongside the winner, Scarlett Strallen, with a double whammy of A Chorus Line and Candide at the Menier, Claudie Blakley (nominated in Chimerica) and lighting designers Peter Mumford and Philip Gladwell who were pipped to the White Light award by Adam Silverman for Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios.

Nigel Planer was nominated for best supporting actor in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Stephen Ashfield was a hugely popular winner for The Book of Mormon) but stepped up to receive the best design award on behalf of Mark Thompson. In a strong field, the Open Air Theatre's The Sound of Music was another popular winner as best musical revival, and director Rachel Kavanaugh took the plaudits. Other musical winners were Titanic (best off-West End show at the Southwark Playhouse) - Simon Green led a stirring chorale from the show to close the first act - and My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Crucible, best regional production ("Maybe one day we will get the rights and you can see it in London," said an impassioned executive director, perhaps directing a plea towards Cameron Mackintosh who retains those rights).

Cameron wasn't with us last night, but Sonia Friedman was, delightedly accepting the best new musical award on behalf of the writers and her fellow producers of The Book of Mormon, and the funny little guy from the show, Jared Gertner, paid glowing tribute to all the backstage and front of house staff in the Prince of Wales. They are indeed a crack ensemble. Stuart Piper's accustomed expert producing job on our awards show, superbly directed as usual by Russell Labey, is fully complemented by the efficiency of that staff all over the building.

It was a lovely surprise, too, to see Sheridan Smith - hair bobbed in the style of Cilla Black, whom she's playing in a new television drama right now - come on stage to pick up the best Shakespeare production prize for The Dream. Director Michael Grandage - best director for the whole season's work at the Noel Coward - was most proud of the fact that a quarter of the 390,000 customers who had come through the front door had paid just £10 for their tickets.

And on that note we adjourned to the after-party, where I found a quiet corner to catch up with legendary playwrights' agent Tom Erhardt and theatre director Glen Walford, two of my oldest friends in the business and two of the most loyal audience members at these awards evenings. The WhatsOnStage Awards now generate untold affection and good will throughout London theatre - which is, as Grandage knows as well as anyone - as much about the audiences as it is about the artists.

See Also: Catherine Love - A winning night for the Michael Grandage Season