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Michael Coveney: Shimmering stars strike gold at the Palace

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"Hardly a tune to savour all night," said Tim Minchin, quoting back my review of Matilda while greeting me cheerily as he arrived in the stalls bar of the Palace Theatre last night for the pre-show reception at the Whatsonstage.com Awards concert.

Which goes to prove two things: artists do read their reviews, and they only remember the bad ones. Actually, I also said that Matilda had a good, stomping syncopated score, deficient in nothing except melody.

But that's the point of the Whatsonstage.com Awards: they are voted for by the ticket-buying public who certainly know what they like, regardless of reviews, and that includes brilliant, unmelodic scores for new musicals.

And Tim was here this year to receive an award, as a performer, in the rock arena revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. He and Mel C were a stunning adornment to our party, and to the show onstage, where Tim said that Judas was the only role he had ever always wanted to play; and then showed us why in his performance.

Best (unmelodic?) Musical this year was The Bodyguard - producers Michael Harrison and David Ian suggested, in their acceptance speech, that they might make a very good Ugly Sister partnership in pantomime - while Best Original Music (melodic or unmelodic) gong went to the Arcola's stunning revival of Sweet Smell of Success by playwright John Guare and composer Marvin Hamlisch.

The late, great Hamlisch's widow, Terre Blair, was a delightful addition to our party, accompanied by suavely attired Arcola director Mehmet Ergen; they revealed to me that the show might be going straight back to Broadway very soon, which is great news.

At this point I was distracted by the arrival of Ruth Wilson and Carrie Cracknell seeking champagne at the bar, which I was only too happy to provide. The hospitality was a strictly red, white or fruit juice deal, but if Ruth Wilson wants champagne, champagne she will have, and I even offered to sip some of it myself from her shoe.

I didn't, of course, but then the green light for champers was well and truly on, and the round (and the pound) stretched to include the inseparable Tricycle trio of Adrian Lester, his wife and Red Velvet author Lolita Chakrabarti and their director Indhu Rubasingham.

The evening was hotting up, and the show hadn't even started. Over there was Fenella Woolgar from the Old Vic Hedda Gabler, shimmering in turquoise, and down there Danielle Hope, representing Les Miserables this year, and strapped into her gorgeous grey dress (first prize, hands down, for best supporting upper torso award) by the entire team of Whatsonstage.com volunteers. Some of them also volunteered to help her out of it.

The new Top Hat take-over stars Kristen Beth Williams and Gavin Lee, both unreasonably tall and equally brilliant, were as charming in the bar as they were, soon afterwards, on the stage. And even heavyweight playwright Howard Brenton seemed more than happy to join in, even though he knew he hadn't won for his strangely underrated play about King Charles and Oliver Cromwell, 55 Days. How did he know that? "Because I'm sitting in the dress circle, not the stalls!"

No awards ceremony is complete, or indeed validated, without Stephen Fry popping up somewhere, and he duly obliged, on video, to accept his prize for Malvolio in the Globe production of Twelfth Night at the Gielgud. That tremendous season was represented on stage by Samuel Barnett and Johnny Flynn ("son of Eric" - TV's Ivanhoe and the first London Bobby in Sondheim's Company - whispered our concert director, Russell Labey, as we stood at the back of the stalls towards the end of the first act).

Top double act, though, were our hosts Mel Giedroyc and Rufus Hound, who found comedy chemistry at once, with some useful running gags based on the fact that they themselves were not award-winners and Hound was not even second choice lead casting on One Man, Two Guvnors. He positively sizzled with the opposite of comic relief at any mention of James Corden or Owain Arthur.

Hound chased Ramin Karimloo down the aisle with a priceless tag line to the singer's declaration that he couldn't wait to do Les Miserables in Canada: "He must be the first person ever to say he can't wait to go to Canada!"

But Ramin got off lightly. Fiery Angel producer John Bath was manhandled by both comperes into not admitting there would be a sequel to The Ladykillers. "Ladykillers 2?" they wanted to know; or, and this very nearly threw the baby out with the Bath water, "Are you going to turn it into a film?"

Ed Stoppard spoke up passionately for this year's Whatsonstage.com nominated charity, Interact, which provides theatre workshops for disabled and disadvantaged children, and the theme of "inclusion" was reiterated by Danny Boyle, graciously accepting the award for the year's top event, the Olympic Games opening ceremony.

Not only that, but clay shooting gold medallist Peter Wilson also took the stage, and was mobbed in the bar, and at the after-party in a Leicester Square hotel, by awe-struck fans demanding to finger his Olympic bauble. The most astonishing thing about this was that he didn't seem to mind; the joy and delight he's taken in his victory has no more worn off than the sheen on his medal.  

In the sense that the public voted for them, all the awards were hugely popular, none more so than Whatsonstage.com favourite Sheridan Smith's for Hedda Gabler. But none was more richly deserved, surely, than Rupert Everett's for his performance as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss, a sumptuously leonine and battered version of Wilde that ducked all the cliches and presented a towering tragic figure entirely devoid of tawdry camp or narcissism.

"Mind you," Rupert said to me in the interval, "I'll have to retire very soon." Pourquoi, knight? "How can I possibly go back on the stage after Michael Billington has said this was the performance of a lifetime? Anything else I do won't measure up."

Ah, there you are. The perils of reading reviews apply both ways. Carping was banished last night, though, as audience and performers joined in a celebration of theatre that engulfed every nook and cranny in the glorious Palace, and no-one was more warmly acclaimed than Andrew Wright, choreographer of Singin' in the Rain, who touchingly said that he'd run away from home, aged 17, with the blessing of his parents, to be a dancer.


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