Michael Coveney: Moments to savour on and offstage at the Olivier Awards

Our chief critic enjoys a glittering night at the Royal Opera House with Bernadette, Benny and Bjorn

Zrinka Cvitesic at the Olivier Awards
Zrinka Cvitesic at the Olivier Awards
© Dan Wooller

The big winners were The Book of Mormon, Chimerica and Ghosts, the latter two shows emanating from the unstoppable Almeida Theatre. Chimerica designer Es Devlin filled the Opera House stage with serried ranks of bronze busts of Olivier disguised as Henry V; "the Julian Fellowes throne room," it was immediately dubbed.

The gorgeous little musical Once supplied the sartorial extremes, with composer/busker Glen Hansard taking the stage in jeans and scuffed shoes with the line, "Thank God I got dressed up for this," and his star Zrinka Cvitesic wearing (almost) a sensational flesh-coloured backless gown while pointing out to her SOLT hosts that her award as best actress in a musical had just changed Croatian history.

Zrinka was seated in the row in front of Leigh Zimmerman, herself no slouch in the costume department, who wore a wonderful shiny green shortie ballgown. As Zrinka shimmied past her, though, Leigh despatched what is known in the trade as an old-fashioned glare. Chimerica director Lyndsey Turner couldn't have cared, or glared, less. She said her mum was in tears not because she had won the best new play director award, but because she hadn't seen her in a dress since she made her first Holy Communion.

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It was sad to see Michael White in a wheelchair but great that he got one of the night's three special awards (the others were nicked by two Nicks, Hytner and Starr of the NT). Great, too, that White – the man behind Oh! Calcutta!, The Rocky Horror Show, the Comic Strip movies and A Chorus Line – should name-check three genuine giants in his pantheon: Peter Daubeny, who produced the game-changing World Theatre Seasons at the Aldwych in the 1960s and 1970s; Tony Richardson, the great stage and movie director and founding father, alongside George Devine, of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court; and peerless critic and provocateur Kenneth Tynan.

I liked the way the whole evening spilt through and beyond the Opera House, starting with various parties and receptions in the vicinity (the sun-bathed terrace of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was the place to be, courtesy of the under-rewarded Charlie and the Chocolate Factory producers): Sonia Friedman, triumphant with Book of Mormon, was writing last-minute messages at a street cafe table but paused to give us a twirl in her glorious antique dress, studded with black diamante; press collected their tickets in a hitherto unknown basement area in Christopher's restaurant; crowds lined the long red carpet walkway which extended almost to Waterloo Bridge.

And the after-party in the reception areas of the Opera House was only marred by a brass band which made conversation impossible. This was regrettable as I had just met the brilliant musical director Catherine Jayes, who Maria Friedman, accepting the best musical director prize, said from the stage, was doomed to work with her for the rest of her life. Having inspected the dance floor on the amphitheatre level, and chatted pleasantly with Bert Fink and Vivien Goodwin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein London headquarters, not to mention Baz Bamigboye of the Mail, I retreated to a "quiet area" behind the crush bar where Scarlett Strallen urged me to join her (and, I hasten to add, her husband) at the through-till-three after-after party at the Rosewood in High Holborn, but that might have been pushing my luck.

I'm told at home that the 45 minutes of highlights on ITV made a pretty decent programme, and the show itself, while a little perfunctorily hosted by Stephen Mangan and Gemma Arterton (nothing much there to rival the madcap brilliance of Rufus Hound and Mel Giedroyc at the WhatsOnStage awards concert earlier this year) did zip by in just over three hours.

Other gems to treasure: Benny and Bjorn leading the Mamma Mia! 15th anniversary get-up-and-dance finale; Alan Bennett commending (on film) the two Nicks' NT Live outreach policy with, "Porthcawl has never known such gales of laughter"; Gavin Creel of The Book of Mormon licking his Olivier; a still and ghostly Bernadette Peters losing her way while "Losing My Mind" from Follies; and presenter Alistair McGowan doing a brilliant impersonation of England football manager Roy Hodgson playing Fagin. Oh, and Richard Eyre saying, as he collected best play director for Ghosts, that he’d been mistaken by his motorbike taxi driver for Peter Stringfellow.

Finally, there were photographs flashed up, Oscar-style, of those who had passed away: former Arts Council finance director and producer Anthony Field, Peter O’Toole and Kate O’Mara, Gerard Murphy and Barbara Hicks, Aubrey Woods (who sang the Candyman song in the first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie) and Patrick Garland…