Olivier Awards 2019: the winners show British theatre's risk-taking instincts and gift for reimagining classics

Sarah Crompton reflects on the list of winners at this year’s Olivier Awards

 Craig (Bobbie) and the ensemble of Company
Craig (Bobbie) and the ensemble of Company
© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Watching the Olivier awards in London while staying in New York is like studying a different world. At a distance, you realise how fragile and complicated the ecosystem of British theatre is. Take a look at the big winners.

Company, which has bagged four awards including both best musical supporting performances for the wonderful Jonathan Bailey and Patti LuPone, and the big prize of Best Musical Revival, was a commercial venture, backed by Elliott Harper in a great act of faith that a Stephen Sondheim musical could thrive in the West End. Only in retrospect does the gamble look like a racing certainty; Company has never been a commercial banker (too clever, too sophisticated, perhaps too American). It was the switch of the lead character from a self-obsessed bachelor to a biologically time challenged woman that made the difference. That and Marianne Elliott's direction, of course.

Certainly British directors have a gift for reimagining American classics

She lost out in the best director category to the another indisputably great director – Stephen Daldry, whose perfectly judged minimalism made Matthew Lopez's seven-hour play The Inheritance into a West End winner. An unlikely but transfixing blend of EM Forster's Howards End, and the problems and guilts of the post-AIDS generation, the play needed the support of David Lan's Young Vic to get to the point where word of mouth and critical reaction could reassure everyone that this really was worth watching. (Which also enabled them to see Kyle Soller's best actor winning performance, outstanding in a strong ensemble.)

It's interesting The Inheritance was premiered in the UK. I tend to think that at the moment, the US has the best of the rising writers but perhaps they still need the risk-taking instincts of British theatre to give them maximum impact. Certainly British directors have a gift for reimagining American classics: I am thrilled to see that Summer and Smoke, which originated at the Almeida before it too moved to the West End, has won the best revival award.

There is evidence that the Oliviers judges were watching carefully

Rebecca Frecknall's bold, brilliant production made the case for a play that was once regarded as minor Tennessee Williams; it was graced by an unbelievably touching central performance by Patsy Ferran that deservedly won her the best actress prize, triumphing in a category where every single nominee (Sophie Okonedo, Gillian Anderson, Eileen Atkins and Katherine Parkinson) could have claimed the prize without me complaining.

Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
© Marc Brenner

Elsewhere there is evidence that the Oliviers judges were watching carefully. Rosalie Craig can count herself unlucky that her warm and generous performance as Bobbie in Company (on which so much of the show's success rested) came up against Sharon D Clarke's magisterial, spine-tingling characterisation of Caroline, the black maid at the heart of Caroline, Or Change. But it's impossible to begrudge Clarke her prize and it's a nod of recognition of a great, new American musical which once again was nursed slowly towards the West End by performances in the subsidised nesting ground of Chichester and then at Hampstead.

Ditto the exceptional but not immediately accessible Home, I'm Darling, Laura Wade's Best New Comedy winner, which achieved its West End run on the back of its debut at Theatre Clwyd and then a run at the National Theatre.

And two quiet but heartfelt cheers for the best supporting actress and actor winners: Monica Dolan for All About Eve and Chris Walley for The Lieutenant of Inishmore, performances from actors at different points in their respective careers that make you want to punch the air about the strength in depth of British theatre.