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Sarah Crompton: Yesterday's awards were a reminder of the riches that British theatre holds

Sarah Crompton reflects on the Olivier Awards and Black British Theatre Awards, both held last night

Miriam-Teak Lee, Sharon D Clarke and Sam Tutty
© Left: David Mensah, centre and right: Aemilia Taylor

The list of Olivier Awards winners feels as if it comes from another world. Even with British theatre creeping slowly back to life – at a socially distanced financial loss – the idea that we could once enjoy musicals as vibrant as & Juliet and Dear Evan Hansen, plays as perceptive and moving as Leopoldstadt (which took the Best New Play award), productions as various and insightful as Jamie Lloyd's groundbreaking Cyrano and Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's Death of a Salesman seems unreal''. As unlikely and disorientating as a dream.

But the awards, postponed from March, were at least a reminder of the riches that British theatre holds and that we are currently both deprived of and in danger of losing. The passion and concern of the prize-winners at the Covid-safe ceremony at The London Palladium (highlights on ITV) was unmistakable. Over at the considerably livelier Black British Theatre Awards (held at the Young Vic and shown on Sky Arts) the same sense of burgeoning talent and love for a threatened art form was just as obvious.

What both ceremonies showed is the way that theatre, whenever it is written, can speak to our age. As Sir Ian McKellen remarked when receiving his special award for his one-man fund-raising show: "A country that cares about its live theatre is a healthy country. It's reminding people that we are only fully ourselves when we're communicating with other people."

That's absolutely true. The best of the stage always offers a way of putting life in context, of understanding something more deeply because someone else has thought about it alongside you. So it was that when the Black Lives Matter protests began, I found myself thinking more and more about the challenge of Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview (BBTA Best Director for a New Play for Nadia Latif) and the micro aggressions of racism shown by Cromwell and Elliott's radical black reinterpretation of Death of a Salesman, with its towering and upsetting central performance from Wendell Pierce (Best Director Oliviers, Best Production BBTA). Dear Evan Hansen (three Oliviers including one for its star Sam Tutty) has the loneliness and isolation of young people covered, and if you want a discussion of the role of women & Juliet (three Oliviers, two BBTAs) has got it in spades, not to mention the soaring radicalism of Emilia (a new look at Shakespeare's so-called "Dark Lady", which took three Oliviers home).

Theatre always illuminates. It can be dark and depressing, or thrilling and uplifting

Both are lively entertainments rather than heavy texts, but that's the great thing – theatre doesn't have to be serious to open up ways of interpreting the world. As Andrew Scott pointed out Noël Coward was brave before his time in confronting difficult issues of sexuality and behaviour in comedies as bright and breezy as Present Laughter (for which Scott won the Best Actor Olivier) and even Mary Poppins (which netted Matthew Bourne a record ninth Olivier award) is about an unhappy family healed by the power of love.

Plays can also, though, bind past to present in ways that are sometimes surprising. Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt (Olivier for Best New Play) is about a specific history, tackling anti-semitism and the unbearable tragedy of the Holocaust. But it is also, as its star Adrian Scarborough pointed out when collecting his Best Supporting Actor Olivier, a play about "family and identity which are two things we've all mourned very deeply over the last seven months."

Theatre always illuminates. It can be dark and depressing, or thrilling and uplifting, or an interesting, challenging mix of the two. It's full of talent and creativity (I was personally, in my dance-loving hat, utterly thrilled to see Ballet Black and the wonderful Mthuthuzeli November win both an Olivier and a BBTA for Ingoma, a dance piece inspired by a protest against apartheid). It is the best of us. However curtailed these awards ceremonies had to be, they were a cause for celebration, a warning that as Tom Stoppard said: "When theatres goes dark something larger goes dark with them."

"Keep the faith people," said Sharon D Clarke, picking up her third Olivier for her shattering performance in Death of A Salesman. "We will be back." Let's hope so. And soon. We need you.