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Michael Coveney: The WhatsOnStage Awards are a party on a level playing field

Michael Coveney reports back from the 16th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards


Nicole Kidman stood up to say hello and towered over me by two feet. She looked glorious in a flesh-coloured dress with poppies on her chest. One hour later, accepting her award for best actress in Photograph 51, she thanked us – the audience – for showing up, standing up and hanging around outside afterwards.

"We talked, and we connected." She could not have entered the spirit of these awards, voted for by the audience, more graciously. This was a flashpoint moment in the 16-year history of the WhatsOnStage Awards. We all sang from the same hymn sheet. Kenneth Branagh, too, was gratified that his exciting Garrick Theatre season had been such a hit with the public, and he accepted his special award on behalf of his entire company. In the interval, and at the after-party in a Leicester Square hotel, I mingled with Cameron Mackintosh (Les Miserables won the West End show gong), Matt Henry (best musical actor in Kinky Boots), co-presenter Janie Dee ( knocking ‘em dead in Hand To God) and Arlene Phillips, beautiful in décolleté black, supporting colleagues. Mark Gatiss (best supporting actor in Three Days in the Country at the National) proved more elusive, but he took to the stage with his customary wit, style and elegance.

This is the point: the WOS Awards are a party on a level playing field. I also met long term supporters, theatre insiders, student fans – one of whom won second prize in the unofficial white feather outfit competition, just pipped to the post by our front row stalwart (male) friend in his hilarious white fluffy boa – Patsy Ferran in black diamante glitter (losing out as best supporting actress to Judi Dench, on a video message, in The Winter's Tale) and the redoubtable Steve Furst, our show-time host, who shot his best bolt early on with a gag about giving a Shakespearean speech to a hypermarket convention: "Now is the winter of our discount tents…"

Matt Henry said, "I love getting up there every night and doing it for you guys"

Benedict Cumberbatch loomed on video to accept his best actor award for Hamlet at the Barbican, but he did go on a bit. Steve said he'd just grown a beard. Golly, Bendy was heartfelt. He thanked everyone except the security officers and the dry-cleaning team. And the house responded with huge cheers, not just for him, but for designer Es Devlin – who said that she and director Lindsay Turner were reduced to tears after a two-star embargo-breaking review appeared in The Times – and producer Sonia Friedman. Sonia also popped up on video, as did weather-beaten directors Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) and Jonathan Kent (Gypsy).

Furst, juggling his cue cards with expert insouciance, was ably assisted by a couldn't-care-less self-deprecating Sarah Hadland (who visibly grew into her role as the evening went on), then by the charmingly cooperative Preeya Kalidas from the sadly under-represented (in the awards) Bend It Like Beckham, then by Janie Dee, who explained to me afterwards why she couldn't, for personal reasons, play Mrs Henderson either in Bath or in town; she was full of praise, though, for Tracie Bennett (who raised the roof in the big duet with Emma Williams) and the show itself.

Cameron Mackintosh on the red carpet
(© ( Dan Wooller))

Jenna Russell flew the flag magnificently for Grey Gardens, though we might have needed more context for her song, and Cameron confided to me offstage that the new book for his upcoming Chichester revival of David Heneker's Half a Sixpence was by-passing Beverley Cross's original libretto and, with Julian Fellowes re-writing the script, resorting directly to the H G Wells original, jusr as he and Julian, with song-smiths Stiles and Drewe – "We're at it again!" Cameron declared – had re-fashioned Mary Poppins (best regional production).

Matt Henry said, "I love getting up there every night and doing it for you guys," while David Bedella (Best Supporting Actor in a Musical), said that, thirteen years after playing Satan in Jerry Springer, he at last felt part of the family.

"One Day More" from Les Miserables, the best act one finale in the history of musical theatre, I reckon, served as an appropriate act two finale to the entire show, expertly marshalled by director Russell Labey, as the cast, their associates, WOS supporters and friends adjourned to Leicester Square.

Read all our coverage of the 16th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards here