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Expert Comment: The Olivier Awards

Theatre Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dr Jacqui Miller, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, History, Media and Communication

In the crowded cultural awards season it is easy for attention to be focused almost entirely on the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and particularly the Oscars. However, the most recent event, the Olivier Awards should not be overlooked, not least because, in a cultural landscape which is often dominated by the dazzle of Hollywood and Broadway, these awards specifically pay tribute to the London theatrical scene.  Beginning in 1975, named after Laurence Olivier, whom many would cite as Britain’s finest ever actor, and awarded by the Society of London Theatre, these accolades have the breadth of range, from opera to musical theatre to dance, of their namesake.

This year’s awards are testimony to the diversity and inclusivity of the British stage. Nominations included ‘high culture’ such Shakespearean adaptations, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing alongside popular musicals including Shrek the Musical. The awards also pay tribute to the range of contributors to a show’s success; Liverpool Hope’s Drama, Music, Dance, and Creative and Performing Arts students who do not necessarily wish to seek careers ‘front of house’ will take inspiration from the recognition given in categories such as lighting design, sound design, set design, choreographer, and director.

The Oliviers present a balance between acknowledging old favourites and encouraging fresh talent, the latter being much needed in economic hard times when financial backing for new projects may be constrained. It is also fascinating to compare new interpretations of stage and film productions that audiences regard as unassailable classics. For example, many had thought Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLain gave definitive portrayals in the 1961 version of The Children’s Hour, but Keira Knightley was rewarded with a nomination for breathing new life into the play. Indeed, this demonstrates one of the most exciting aspects of British drama; the versatility of its talent. Benedict Cumberbatch is best known as a television actor, Johnny Lee Miller for film work, but they jointly shared the acting award for their parts in Frankenstein – directed by Danny Boyle, best-known as an Oscar-winning film director.

The mix of much-loved, essentially British literature, innovative cross-cultural adaptation, fostering of new talent and downright fun that defines the Oliviers was best captured this year by the domination of Matilda. Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s (of all ages) classic, this new musical broke records by achieving seven awards, and the sight of four exuberant young actors, or ‘little twerps’ as they were dubbed by songwriter Tim Minchin, jointly accepting their ‘best actress in a musical’ award seemed to guarantee the future life and vibrancy of British theatre.

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