It’s a funny old time in theatre. As theatres both in London and the regions, struggle back from Covid, already on shoe-string budgets, needing to find new ways of keeping and attracting audiences, whose own ways of theatre-going have changed, virtually every day seems to bring news of trouble now or trouble now.
Kwame Kwei-Armah announces he is leaving the Young Vic after an exceptional, vibrant six years in charge, and then warns of the loss of a generation of talent without government intervention. David Byrne arrives at the Royal Court and is faced with the need to make redundancies – including the possibility of cutting the legendary Literary Department.
Then along come the WhatsOnStage Awards to cheer everyone up. Here are prizes voted for by the people who actually fill the seats night after night, who keep alive the habit of paying hard-earned money to see a show of their choice. It’s always such a celebratory moment: not just the awards ceremony itself, this year in the splendid setting of one of London’s most beautiful and famous playhouses, but the fact that so many of you have voted and made your favourites known.
The winners capture the sense of excitement and purpose that British theatre is still capable of generating, concentrating attention around some of the theatrical events that keep the flame alive. Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard is a case in point. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year, audaciously simplifying some of an old favourite’s grand effects to make it a tale for a modern time.
Obviously, the casting of Nicole Scherzinger was a coup – putting a pop celebrity at the heart of a show that is in its essence about the fading nature of fame. Yet she moved beyond that piece of celebrity casting to produce an utterly committed and revelatory performance. The same is true of James Norton in Ivo van Hove’s version of the cult favourite A Little Life. His portrayal of the tortured hero went beyond the obvious attraction of putting a television favourite in a gruelling stage role; he managed to reveal a truth about the nature of trauma by the sensitivity and subtlety of his acting.
In a sense, that’s what we all go to the theatre for – for its capacity to reveal truths through the most artificial of means, to bind us into a community of watching that is quite different from anything we experience on screen or on the page.
The awards also reveal just how carefully you, the voters, are watching the shows. It’s lovely to see Matt Cole’s choreography acknowledge for Newsies, Bunny Christie’s inventive set for Guys and Dolls, and Ryan Dawson Laight’s fabulous costumes for La Cage aux Folles. Operation Mincemeat which is enjoying such world-beating success might have led the field as best new musical, but it’s great that The Lord of the Rings at the Watermill, a theatre that has defied augury to keep going in face of losing its Arts Council support, was also recognised. The nod to Jill Green for casting The Little Big Things is also a pleasure to see.
In terms of the younger performers, hurrah for the recognition of Aimee Lou Wood, who is rapidly making her mark as one of the best actors of the new generation, for Jack Wolfe’s breakout performance in the brilliant Next to Normal, and for Grace Hodgett Young’s impressive debut in Sunset Boulevard. The Best New Play award for Stranger Things: The First Shadow, a radical, ground-breaking production that so strongly appeals to a younger audience also feels like a marker for the future.
Set alongside the sheer technical brilliance and audacity of Simon Stephens and Andrew Scott’s take on Vanya, and Nicholas Hytner’s revival of Guys and Dolls that imaginatively presents a great American classic in a new light, the WhatsOnStage Awards are a wonderful reminder of the sheer vibrancy of British theatre, its ability to create shows that raise important issues and lift the spirits, inform and entertain, and basically just blow your socks off whatever your age or your taste.