Michael Coveney: Olivier Awards move into gear and stand by for King Charles and the Minotaur
The Olivier Awards on Sunday are shaping up to be the strongest in years
Two marathons take place in London on Sunday: the road race through the city with Mo Farah hoping to stoke memories of Olympic glory by taking his first marathon title; and the Olivier Awards in the Royal Opera House, attended by all sorts of red carpet fanfare, an early evening stage show in the Covent Garden Piazza (hosted by Myleene Klass and Michael Xavier), large screens relaying the ceremony itself to the star-crazy throng outside, and television highlights on ITV later on that night.
The full title of the event is "Olivier Awards 2014 with MasterCard," and the Society of London Theatre, SOLT, is hoping to hit on a winning popular formula at last after several years of misfired live radio broadcasts, absence from television screens and overlong excerpts from the shows. They are right to claim that this is "the most prestigious event in the UK's theatrical calendar" but there's still a niggling anxiety about how the awards are actually decided: basically, a team of professionals with members of the public nominate the contenders, and then, as far as one can understand it, SOLT members themselves vote the winners.
One of those SOLT producers, and one of the most distinguished of them, is to be singularly honoured this year, I gather, and not before time. In the other categories, I hope I'm not putting a hex on them by saying I'd like to see Henry Goodman win the best actor gong (for his performance in Arturo Ui) and Anna Chancellor for best actress in Private Lives.
I shall be watching myself this year inside the Opera House, eager to see how Gemma Arterton and Stephen Mangan strike sparks off each other as the hosts, and hoping there are awards, too, for American soprano Joyce DiDonato (I adore her unconditionally) and Chimerica author Lucy Kirkwood. The guest presenters include a pair of wonderful dames - Penelope Keith and Gillian Lynne - as well as those dirty rotten scoundrels Rufus Hound and Robert Lindsay, Ben Miles who will be leading the triumphant RSC Thomas Cromwell plays into the Aldwych next month, and the glorious "fallen angels" (a play they should try together some time), Ruth Wilson and Leigh Zimmerman.
The Olivier Awards - originally the SWET (Society of West End Theatres) and then the SOLT - date from 1976. Before then, we had the Evening Standard awards launched in 1955 - Richard Burton was best actor, The Pajama Game best musical and Salad Days "most enjoyable show" - and the magazine Plays and Players prizes started in 1962. These latter morphed into the Critics' Circle awards and since then we've had, of course, the WhatsOnStage awards which are the only awards voted for by the public, and the only awards to "put on a show" to compare with the Oliviers.
The show at the Oliviers this year will be led by an onstage reunion of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, celebrating fifteen years of Mamma Mia! and Bernadette Peters, the great Sondheim specialist, who is flying in from New York to perform with the BBC Concert Orchestra. And the great Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja will close the first half with Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca. Extracts are coming, too, from all four nominees in the best musical category: The Book of Mormon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Once and The Scottsboro Boys - a strong shortlist.
Bonny Prince Charlie at Almeida
Next year's Oliviers are almost certain to feature the play that opened last night at the Almeida, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III, in which Tim Pigott-Smith gives an outstanding performance as the Prince of Wales, easily a match for those of Helen Mirren, Prunella Scales and (currently at the Vaudeville in Handbagged) Marion Bailey as his poor old mum.
The only real surprise in the Oliviers - and indeed in all the other awards - is that there is no acknowledgment of young people's theatre. This is where it all starts, and the work in this field has been remarkable over the past twenty years, and I don't just mean the children's plays of David Wood or the amazing success of the Peppa Pig and Gruffalo franchises.
The Polka in Wimbledon often has the best work in this sphere, and the new show there - which I saw at a pretty full matinee yesterday afternoon en route to the Almeida - is first class. Minotaur by Kevin Dyer (co-commissioned by Polka, Clwyd Theatr Cymru for Young People and Young People's Theatre in Toronto, Canada) is a re-telling of the legend in which Theseus slays the half-bull, half-man creature in the Labyrinth on his way home to Athens.
Michael Fentiman's production, brilliantly lit by Olivier Awards nominee Tim Lutkin, makes of the myth a Harry Potter-style story with young Freddie (Ben Stott) a surrogate Theseus in a "back to the future" scenario that comes over all legendary in his own backyard; his own Dad, a futuristic Aegeus, is fighting in a foreign war, while Liza Sadovy's vengefully wicked Cretan queen Pasiphae, the Minotaur's mum, jumps time to make Freddie move the huge stone in his shed and pluck his Excalibur from beneath it.
Pasiphae's other child is Ariadne (a spirited Carla Langley), with whom Freddie/Theseus falls in love after she helps him through the maze with her famous thread, here an illuminated green string. In this version of the story, it's Ariadne who kills her own bestial brother. The 70-minute show, which is funny and inventive, has a Shakespearean dimension in its cycle of revenge and war-like gravitas, but is also "accessible" in a good way, showing how timeless themes colour and inform everyday actions.
Look out for all our coverage from this year's Olivier Awards