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Michael Coveney: Olivier big winners and Stratford long runners

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The Royal Shakespeare Company kept a low profile all weekend, not winning any Olivier awards as usual (last year's all-conquering Matilda was a turn up for the form book, and not really very RSC; far less so, for instance, than Les Miserables) and unrepresented, as far as I could see, in the Stratford-upon-Avon marathon and half marathon.

This latter event took place yesterday morning and the RSC Press office told me they knew of no company members taking part, which is rather strange. Mind you, if you're Jonathan Slinger, and playing Hamlet, I guess that's enough of a marathon to be getting on with without traipsing round the Bard's countryside as well on a Sunday morning.

I hadn't seen the production, so took the chance of catching it on Saturday night before the race, and very good it is, too. Slinger is superb at conveying the prince's depression rather than melancholy, and his prodigious vocal talent makes every line fresh and interesting, with all sorts of variations in tone and tempi, and not a hint of mere "singing" in the Dane.

David Farr's production is set in a large fencing school, or gymnasium, and there are similarities with Ian Rickson's insitutionalised Elsinore for the Michael Sheen version at the Young Vic. I love Luke Treadaway's performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as much as anyone; but for psychotic and psychological range, and sheer technical virtuosity and scathing, sardonic humour, let alone pathos, it doesn't begin to come near what Slinger does in Hamlet.

So perhaps the RSC will bounce back again at next year's Olivier awards, although of course we don't have any information of London transfers beyond David Tennant's Richard II coming to the Barbican later this year after its Stratford opening.

Curious Incident is this year's Olivier big winner (with seven prizes) just as Matilda was last year's. I'm sure culture secretary Maria Miller knows that the show originated at the National Theatre, and that nothing like it would ever be initiated on Shaftesbury Avenue itself.

That said, I guess it's appropriate that Top Hat won three Oliviers (although I myself think it's almost as mediocre a production as A Chorus Line, brilliant Olivier winner Leigh Zimmerman excepted). And Sweeney Todd is a deserving three-gong winner, too, especially for Imelda Staunton's glorious Mrs Lovett and Michael Ball's revelatory demon barber, the performance of his life time.

I was sorry to miss the ceremony at the Royal Opera House, but even sorrier to miss Greg Hicks' Stratford double of the Ghost and Claudius in Hamlet; he was "indisposed" at Saturday night's performance (the enormous John Stahl stood in for him, pretty well, though he ran out of steam in the second half), though a programme-seller in the bookshop - there doesn't seem to be any such thing as an authoritative front-of-house manager at Stratford any more, no real welcome mat - told me that Greg has just become a Dad, so all congrats to him and his partner.

I was fearful of the weather forecast for the race, but all turned out well as we set off twice round the town and then away into the countryside, over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough briar, marked by beautiful stretches of green pasture and farmland, the villages of Luddington, Welford-on-Avon and Milcote, before the long trudge along the old railway line route, returning by the Stratford racecourse and then dropping down for a sprint finish (ho-ho) along the river bank and into the meadows opposite the theatre.

Never was a finish line more welcome, never a free banana more appreciated, never a medal more proudly accepted, even at the Olivier awards. The results aren't up on line yet, but I checked my result of two years ago, in which I was timed at 2 hours, three minutes (for the half marathon) and came home 902nd in a field of about 2,500; I fear I've slipped by about ten minutes, meaning that my nine-and-a-half minute mile on average is now nearer ten minutes, but I felt far more comfortable than I expected.

My friend and neighbour, television producer Neil Cameron, who ran the London marathon eight days ago in under four hours, whizzed round in one hour, 42 minutes (unconfirmed time), an amazing performance that fully merited the delicious pints we soon supped in the Dirty Duck after warming down with a swim and a sauna in the Alveston Manor Hotel.

We then joined friends for dinner in the Vintner's in Sheep Street - one of six or seven excellent restaurants Stratford now has, for those who still think the place is a gastronomic desert - before taking a leisurely train journey home.

Conveniently, there were television highlights of the Oliviers on ITV, though I wasn't encouraged by Sheridan Smith - star of so many Whatsonstage.com Awards ceremonies, and everyone's favourite - opening up with a tacky-looking version of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; looked more like paste than gems to me.

But it was smart, as well as gracious, of Helen Mirren, who looked fab as usual, to dedicate her award as best actress to the Queen herself, and lovely to see that Richard McCabe was honoured as best supporting actor for his brilliant and moving Harold Wilson in the  same play.

The Audience is a genuine West End success, though of course none of it would ever have happened without the careers nurtured in the subsidised sector (nb, Maria Miller) - and those include Mirren's and McCabe's, both at the RSC, as well as director Stephen Daldry's (at the Sheffield Crucible, Royal Court and National) and those of his design team led by RSC (and NT) regular Bob Crowley. So the RSC can take a bow, of sorts, after all.


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