What is the point of the Oliviers?

What is the point of the Olivier Awards? They purport to celebrate theatre but end up looking like self congratulatory lovie love-ins. The awards, organised by the Society of London Theatres, are meant to be a shop window for the best shows, performers and creatives. But what kind of shop displays goods that are not on sale? Want a ticket for the multi-Olivier winning Sunset Boulevard? Sorry, it’s closed. Perhaps you’d like to see the Best New Play? I’m afraid not, the final whistle has blown for Dear England. The curtain has come down on Best Actor Mark Gatiss’ John Gielgud. Vanya, the best play revival, has gone back under the dust covers. Quick! You can still catch Sarah Snook in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stranger Things, Operation Mincemeat and Guys And Dolls. At least all the Oscar winners have an afterlife of DVDs and streaming.
Let’s not even debate the ridiculous proposition that there is such a thing as the best. For example, Mark Gatiss thoroughly deserved his award as Best Actor but any of the otger nominees- Andrew Scott, James Norton, Joseph Fiennes or David Tennant- would have been just as deserving.
Inevitably, once you invent an award someone has to win it. But who could possibly have decided that Guys And Dolls only merited one award? One? Who made the decision to give almost every Olivier to Sunset Boulevard. Did Tom Francis really give a better performance than the phenomenal Charlie Stemp in Crazy For You? You couldn’t choose between their voices, so did Nicole Scherzinger offer as subtle an acting performance as Marisha Wallace did in Guys And Dolls to win Best Actress in a Musical?

You can say it’s all a matter of opinion and taste, but I return to my question: who makes the decisions? The answer is surprising. David Benedict explained in a recent article in The Stage that a panel of ten experts cast their votes. This would be reassuring except for the fact they are slightly outweighed by the 238 votes cast by members of the Society of London Theatres, in other words, theatre owners and producers, the larger of whom have multiple votes. Fortunately, they are all honourable people who vote objectively and wouldn’t dream of favouring their own shows. Even so, if the general public knew that the awards were potentially given to people voting for themselves, I doubt there would be any interest at all.

So, if we are to take the winners with a pinch of salt, I go back to my question: what is the point of the Oliviers? Rather than being anything as lofty as celebrating the best in London theatre, I suggest it’s marketing plain and simple. If that’s the case, the Awards are doing a decent job. The ceremony was covered in the news media from the nominations to the red carpet to the results, albeit not interesting enough to be broadcast on TV.
And, talking of marketing, the Lloyd Webber empire of theatres and productions must be pleased to be able to boast so many Oliviers in the publicity for the Broadway opening of Sunset Boulevard.

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