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Michael Coveney: Oliviers 2012 Blog - Rice adds class

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They try so hard but they sound so tacky: that was the impression I got on tuning into BBC Radio 2 for the live broadcast of the Oliviers last night. I missed the first few hours because of a prior engagement with the wondrous Cate Blanchett in Big and Small at the Barbican.

Aiming at a joke, co-host Imelda Staunton, the gritty sandpaper rubbing along Michael Ball's smooth surface, declared that Hayley Attwell would present an award after flying in from Ealing. The listening millions, or hundreds, must have thought, "Hayley who?" and is that Ealing, LA, or just Ealing Common? It was definitely common.

Then Tyne Daly stepped up to present best new play -- (why?) -- and said, bizarrely, "Can I just say two words to you?" Could this be the moment when the airwaves turned blue, at last? "Laurence Olivier," she intoned, to a deafening silence.

Oh dear. Then Ronan Keating, who's not Dean Martin, sang "I'll never fall in love again" from Promises, Promises and was joined by Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud (and she's not Doris Day) to sing "No Matter What" from Whistle Down the Wind, though neither the hosts, nor Ken Bruce, the radio presenter, credited the authorship of either song (Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman); take a few etiquette tips from Frank Sinatra, guys.

Or indeed from Tim Rice, who at least raised the tone in graciously accepting his special award by thanking the veteran director Frank Dunlop (then running the Young Vic) for turning Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat from a twenty-minute cantata into a worldwide success "almost entirely off his own bat."

Tim ("I just write the words") was praised by collaborators Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber by video link, the latter excusing himself for not turning up in person by saying he was "making a TV show I know you wouldn't approve of," meaning, presumably, the search for an unknown West End Jesus, though it was hard to believe that they were hard at it on a Sunday night.

Tim also thanked the Everly Brothers, cricketer Denis Compton and the astronomist Patrick ("The Sky at Night") Moore for being his heroes. Thanking Compton at a bash in LA hadn't gone down too well, he said, and he was asked what films Compton had made. At least he was able to say he had appeared in one film: The Last Test, a movie about cricket scripted by Terence Rattigan. 

Tim, and time, then stood still as Elaine Paige rolled back the years with a heart-breaking rendition of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," despite the fact that we are never quite sure what the lyrics actually mean in the song. It's simply one of the all-time great stage anthems, and it never fails to tear an audience apart. Nor did it last night.

There are glaring anomalies in any awards list -- except of course in the comprehensive Whatsonstage.com Awards, voted for by the public -- but the anomaly that glared most was the complete absence of any gong for One Man, Two Guvnors which, by any set of criteria, was the outstanding show of last year.

Good on Matilda for scooping seven awards, and it's high time the RSC figured somehow in these ceremonies after decades in the awards wilderness, but, really... John Hodge's Collaborators was alright, and it was brilliantly directed by Nicholas Hytner and superbly played by Simon Russell Beale as Stalin and Alex Jennings as Bulgakov, but... it's definitely The Mountaintop moment this year.

You begin to wonder by what arcane ritual or secret voting system do the Society of London Theatre come up with these nominations. At least they got the best opera production right, Castor and Pollux at the ENO, though there will be much howling and gnashing of teeth in the opera division of the Critics' Circle.

But Tim Rice know better than to rely on critics to get anything right, wrly remarking, apropos the recent New York press receptions for Superstar and Evita, that at least the reviews over there have now improved to "mediocre."

My Olivier experience was sandwiched by two really great actors, Blanchett at the Barbican and then, on BBC4 -- after a screening of Nicholas Roeg's sexy masterpiece, Walkabout, starring Jenny Agutter, scripted by Edward Bond, with a great score by John Barry -- Mark Rylance in late-night conversation with Mark Lawson.

Blanchett is so good, it doesn't really matter that Big and Small is a broken-backed avant-garde throwback. She commands the stage as brilliantly, and as imperiously, as Mark Rylance did in Jerusalem, and I went to bed wondering not what might have been at the Oliviers, but what might still be if these two remarkable actors ever got together on stage in the same production. We really would have lift-off, and not just back to Ealing.

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