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Michael Coveney: WhatsOnStage Awards Launch Party hits the heights... again

Michael Coveney looks back on the 2014 WhatsOnStage Awards Launch

Cynthia Erivo performing at the Launch
© Peter Gibbons

The news that the Cafe de Paris at Piccadilly Circus is to be restored to its former cabaret glory and status in the New Year is good news all round, but no surprise to WhatsOnStage which has been holding its awards nominations party there for some years now.

The annual bash on Friday - and everyone says that the party just gets better every year - reinforced the impression that this is an intimate venue for a large crowd without equal in the capital, and we were blessed with wonderful performance contributions: including the amazing Cynthia Erivo - who is starring alongside Nigel Harman in I Can't Sing! The X Factor Musical next year - reminding us of her powerhouse performance in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory (for which she is nominated as best actress in a musical); and from Richard Fleeshman and the gang in Urinetown The Musical, coming soon to the St James Theatre.

Outgoing St James artistic director David Gilmore told me in the throng that he's been in negotiations for Urinetown for three years now, and hopes that a little of the credit (if it's a success!) will come his way; meanwhile, he's busy on other projects, one or two of them in collaboration with his old friend Trevor Nunn. The ungrateful St James will probably come knocking on his door before you can say Daisy Pulls It Off, one of his early successes when he ran the Nuffield in Southampton.

It was Gilmore, of course, who brought In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, to the St James and I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with one of its stars, Natalie Casey. I had an appropriate bit of schtick, I thought, all ready to fire at her when she started fiddling with my hand mike, but the moment passed, thanks to her rapid fire Mancunian backchat.

After editorial director Terri Paddock had announced the first two sets of categories with Equity president Malcolm Sinclair - reminding "you buggers out there who've not signed up yet to do so immediately" - and smooth-as-silk Nigel Harman, Natalie and I were charged with announcing the third lot. She was so funny and quick I reckon our new favourite co-compere of the awards concert in February, Mel Giedroyc, had better watch her back.

Mel will be onstage at the Prince of Wales on 23 February with Rufus Hound, reprising their sensational double act from last year, and it was good to see Billy Differ, who is operations director for the Cameron Mackintosh theatres, milling discreetly around and keeping a beady eye on things.

Rufus, alas, sporting a natty silk cravat, had to depart before taking the stage with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels soon-to-be co-star Robert Lindsay to announce the fourth set of categories with Terri, but as his substitute was the other Scoundrels headliner, Katherine Kingsley (Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Michael Grandage season, nominated as best Shakespearean production), no-one was complaining too much.

Our great troupe of volunteers and regular colleagues, led by Laura Norman, Rosie Bannister, Joe Pike doing the taped interviews and Dan Wooller doing the snaps, made the whole event go with a swing, and it was a joy to catch brief conversations with such fine actors as Alan Cox, Charlotte Randle, Nigel Planer (nominated as best supporting actor in a musical for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Darrell D'Silva, Monica Dolan, Jimmy Akingbola, Cecilia Noble, Dawn Hope, Owen Teale and our latest Billie Holiday, Nina Kristofferson.

There were useful update opportunities, too, with Bert Fink and Vivien Goodwin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation, designer Tim Goodchild (nominated for best set design, Strangers on a Train), off to spend his first ever Christmas in New York, lighting designer Philip Gladwell (nominated for Limbo at the London Wonderground) and actors' agent Denise Silvey.

My own personal highlight might have been standing at the top of a staircase and talking to Leigh Zimmerman, face to face, even though she was half-way down it. She is nominated as best supporting actress in a musical, and her show, A Chorus Line, as both the best musical revival and best ensemble performance. We reprised our considerable surprise that Contact, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, in which she played, unforgettably, the Girl in the Yellow Dress, hadn't been a bigger hit.

But hey, that's ten years ago, and who knows what's around the corner. I guess one of the West End's top priorities must be to get Leigh back on the stage in a knock 'em dead musical theatre dance role asap, and I'd hate to be the person responsible for having to choose at the final round of auditions between her and Hannah Waddingham.

Every year, WhatsOnStage collaborates with a selected charity to raise awareness and funds during the awards season, and this year's official charity, the Big Issue foundation, is a particularly good fit. John Bird, the Big Issue founder, is a bit of a hero of mine, so it was privilege to introduce him as the godfather, and indeed the grandfather, of social enterprise.

He gave a hilarious speech, underlining the special similarities between actors and Big Issue sellers hawking their wares to an unsuspecting and hopefully sympathetic public, and convinced Robert Lindsay for one that his future could include some sort of life upon the wicked stage. It was like watching a performance by Alexei Sayle channelled through Bob Hoskins, and I dare say a few producers in the gathering were making a few notes...