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Sarah Crompton on the WhatsOnStage Awards – a little joy in a time of gloom

The awards were held last night at the Prince of Wales Theatre

Jodie Comer (left), and My Neighbour Totoro stars and presenters Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac
© Danny Kaan

Let's give a huge cheer for the WhatsOnStage Awards for bringing a little joy in a time of gloom. There is no doubt that this is a grim and difficult time for theatre with the closure of the Oldham Coliseum after it lost all its Arts Council funding being just the tip of a very dangerous iceberg for regional theatre. In London too all is not plain sailing. The churn in the artistic directorships of major new writing theatres – the Donmar, the Royal Court, and Hampstead – is a sign of the uncertainty that the future holds.

But for a happy moment at the weekend all of that was forgotten as our awards, voted for by audiences around the country, gave a welcome reminder of just how uplifting theatre can be.

It wasn't just that in the new gender neutral awards women came out top (in contrast to the Brits where they resulted in their omission from the podium). It was also the nature of the women who won prizes.

There can't be much doubt that there's rarely been a more sensational West End debut than that of Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, a timely play about an upwardly mobile female barrister whose views on sexual assault are radically altered by her own experience. Alone on a stage she commanded absolute attention with a visceral skill and power.

But Courtney Bowman also made a huge impact in completely rethinking the portrayal of the ditzy Elle in the musical Legally Blonde in Lucy Moss' entirely rethought and every way diverse production. It was a pure pleasure to be at that show but it was also a moment when theatre allowed the way society itself has been changed to reflect back at itself with huge punch and panache. Note also the ongoing success of Six – and of Gwyneth Keyworth's nod for her performance as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, a play about the importance of justice and standing up for your principles in a place of hostility.

That sense of theatre being a mirror and a balm in tricky times was everywhere on show. The awards, given and voted for by the actual people who buy the tickets and keep theatre going, felt hugely affirmative of talent and of trust in an art form that gives so many people so much pleasure.

That also explained the love lavished on the RSC's production of My Neighbour Totoro. This is a show that encapsulates love that encapsulates love, magic and the transformative power of nature. Its five awards felt particularly celebratory.

It is that very rare thing, a piece that preserves the quality of a much-loved film while simultaneously transposing its sense of wonder to a new medium. The inspirational quality of Phelim McDermott's direction, Tom Pye's sets and Basil Twist's puppets was that they kept the qualities of theatre, letting their workings show if you like.

In a world of increasingly advanced special effects, it would've been quite easy to show the soot sprites for example, as a filmed effect. Instead they took the decision to have puppeteers in black clothes and masks waving skinny poles across the set with the little sprites attached to the edges. Those same puppeteers, masks up now to show that they are characters, (another inspired touch), brought paddyfields onto the stage on their feet and made a flock of hens peck and squabble.

It couldn't have been more clever or more fun. That's without even talking about the simple wonder of a huge furry puppet that a grown-up actress can lie on, sinking into his skin in a comfortable and comforting hug. Or a giant yellow cat that floats across the stage.

These are inherently theatrical effects; they are not the same as being at the cinema or watching something on TV. You have to be there to feel the them and as such the prizes for Totoro summed up the WOS Awards. A validation of everything that is special about stage – and the reason we must all be vigilant in saving it.