From gender-flipped Sondheim to a seven-hour epic inspired by EM Forster, our judges reveal how they decided who would triumph at this year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
In partnership with Ambassador Theatre Group
Ralph Fiennes, Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre (Olivier)
Having seemed lost to the screen, Ralph Fiennes returned to the stage with such energy and ambition that the 55-year-old won his second Evening Standard Best Actor statuette in three years, having taken the prize in 2016 for Shakespeare’s Richard III and Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
In playing classical roles, actors invite measurement against past greats. But even the longest-serving critics judged Fiennes to be at least equal to the best Antonys.
The Roman is unusual among Shakespearean tragic heroes in that his decline has begun even before the play: flashback speeches establish that a great warrior, politician and lover has reached his best-before date. His key line is: “I am Antony yet.”
Giving those words a perfect note of nervous defiance, Fiennes, in a performance notably free of vanity, effectively gave Antony two voices and two bodies, past strength overcoming recent weakness. He is Antony now, and for a long time to come.
Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress
In partnership with Christian Louboutin
Sophie Okonedo, Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre (Olivier)
It was 19 years ago that Sophie Okonedo played the distaff half of a well-known Shakespearean couple in Troilus and Cressida on the National’s Olivier stage, only to ascend two decades later at the same address to the sublime heights of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: Ralph Fiennes shines, too, as her commendably robust Antony. And while Fiennes has been navigating his way through the classical canon throughout his career, Okonedo proves his match in a performance that registers both rhetorically and sensually.
More than many in this part, Okonedo catches the bitchy, waspish humour of the Egyptian queen, navigating an outsized landscape of love and loss with bewitching ease. Then, in the play’s final passages, she finds a graceful eloquence in grief, while fielding a real snake — a task surplus to requirements that this actress pulls off with the ease that characterises the whole performance.
In partnership with Chanel
The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Young Vic & Noël Coward Theatre
“Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted” is EM Forster’s famous maxim from his novel Howards End, the inspiration for American playwright Matthew Lopez’s stirringly heartfelt, sweeping, seven-hour, two-part drama The Inheritance, which quickly sold out a limited run at the Young Vic and transferred to the West End.
Lopez took Forster’s tapestry of families bound by strands of love and legacy, setting it in a politically and sexually charged, modern-day New York where gay men wrestle over the emotional bequests left by a generation of men who died during the Aids crisis.
Lopez brilliantly connects Forster’s passion and prose in a richly powerful play, superbly and simply realised by director Stephen Daldry, that gives honour and poetry to the ghosts that haunted the stage, and pierced the hearts of all genders and persuasions.
Best Musical Performance
Rosalie Craig, Company, Gielgud Theatre
Rosalie Craig made history in 2013 as the first person to win this category, which was for Marianne Elliott’s production of The Light Princess for the National Theatre. This year, Craig again makes history in a second partnering with Elliott — on this occasion refashioning the perpetual bachelor, Bobby, from the 1970 Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Company as that show’s first-ever female Bobbie: same pronunciation but an entirely new take on that rare musical revival that really does revise its source.
Far from the emotionally remote playboy of old, Craig’s Bobbie is a questing, funny, vitally alive Manhattan career woman who exists in imaginative freefall before unlocking the connective way forward in the show’s anthemic final number, Being Alive. Long a well-kept secret within British musical theatre circles, this performance marks Craig out — and about time, too — as a genuine star.
Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright
Natasha Gordon, Nine Night, National Theatre (Dorfman)
The sheer liveliness and vigour of Natasha Gordon’s debut play, Nine Night, leapt off the National Theatre’s submissions pile and straight onto the stage. There it entranced audiences with its vivid portrait of the inter-generational tensions revealed when a British family of Jamaican origin stage the traditional extended wake required to mourn the dead.
It gained added resonance from the Windrush scandal unfolding around it but its poetic comedy, its ability to describe and present profound emotion, while always retaining humour and warmth, was a marker for a remarkable talent.
Until now, Gordon has been best known as an actress. The transfer of this play about grief, love and being haunted by the past gives her a new claim to fame as she becomes the first black British female playwright to have a play in the West End. More than that, it announces her arrival as a playwright of power and passion, one to watch and cherish in future.
Milton Shulman Award for Best Director
Marianne Elliott, Company, Gielgud Theatre
From War Horse to Angels in America, Marianne Elliott has revealed two overriding qualities: a gift for the visually spectacular and a remarkable grasp of human psychology. The two qualities combined are what make her such a remarkable director, and they come together perfectly in her staging of Company.
But there’s another quality at play here: having decided to mount Stephen Sondheim’s musical with a woman as Bobbie, rather than the male Bobby for which it was written, she has worked with intelligence and flair to make every single aspect of that choice consistent. The result is a production of dazzling brilliance and profound intellectual and emotional depth. It confirms Elliott as one of the most interesting and daring directors in theatre today.
Hamilton, Victoria Palace
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is truly revolutionary. It’s a game-changing, boundary-breaking show, remarkable in its verve and velocity. Though hip hop has never before had much of an impact on musical theatre, Hamilton has made it seem like an essential new part of its vocabulary. That’s thanks to Miranda’s verbal dexterity and his special gift for emotionally nourishing entertainment.
Some doubted that London audiences would connect with a story so steeped in 18th-century American politics. Yet this is the kind of history lesson that also boasts insanely catchy tunes. Blessed with a superb cast, it’s been rapturously received — not least as a timely celebration of the successes of people from society’s margins.
Miriam Buether, The Jungle, Young Vic & Playhouse Theatre
From the moment this devastating piece about the Calais migrant camp opened at the Young Vic, Miriam Buether’s design was a talking point. It put the audience in The Jungle’s restaurant — a makeshift space with an earthy simplicity. When it transferred to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, that rough immediacy seemed even more vivid. The auditorium was transformed, with the plush stalls seats ripped out to make room for plywood walkways.
The word “immersive” gets bandied about a lot in theatre, but here it felt spot-on. To engage with this production was to be jolted into a different reality: one where the smells of freshly brewed chai and Afghan cooking were present, along with the resilient humanity of their creators.
Cameron Mackintosh, for his contribution to musical theatre
Cameron Mackintosh decided that he wanted to be a theatre producer when he was eight years old and went with his aunts to a matinee of Julian Slade’s Salad Days. A decade later he cut his teeth as a stagehand but was soon forging a reputation as a dynamic taste-maker with a love of musicals.
Today he is theatre’s most influential producer. His biggest hits — Les Misérables, Cats, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins and Oliver! — have achieved a global reach and defined the essence of musical theatre.
He’s also passionate about investing in the fabric of the eight London venues he owns — most recently the Victoria Palace, home of Hamilton, which he’s taken characteristic delight in co-producing.
Emerging Talent Award
In partnership with Access Entertainment
Jamael Westman, Hamilton, Victoria Palace
Jamael Westman, a 6ft 4in south Londoner, was 25 when he stepped onto the stage of the Victoria Palace as Alexander Hamilton, the $10 Founding Father subject of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut of a musical, Hamilton.
It was his third job since graduating from Rada and, by his own admission, he hadn’t been an ardent fan of musicals until a fellow student urged him to listen to Miranda’s hip hop score. Soon he was auditioning for the title role in front of the show’s director, Thomas Kail, theatre owner Cameron Mackintosh and Miranda. Scary? But Westman wowed them with his mastery of lyrical rhymes, acting ability, charisma and sheer unflappability.
Hamilton, a sensation on Broadway, arrived in London with all the attendant expectations of a blockbuster smash-hit. Could Westman equal, or surpass, the performance originated at the Public Theater, and on Broadway, by none other than Miranda himself? No worries. For soon he was triumphing, and continues to triumph, on the stage where it happens.
Where to see the winners
Antony & Cleopatra is at the National’s Olivier, SE1 (020 7452 3000, nationaltheatre.org.uk) until Jan 19; Company is at the Gielgud, WC2 (0344 482 5138, delfontmackintosh.co.uk) booking until Mar 30; Hamilton is booking at the Victoria Palace, SW1 (0844 482 5138, victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk) until Mar 30; The Inheritance is at the Noël Coward, WC2 (0844 482 5151, noelcowardtheatre.co.uk) until Jan 19; Nine Night transfers to the Trafalgar Studios, SW1 (0844 871 7615, atgtickets.com) Dec 1-Feb 23.
The Official Platinum Partner of the 64th Evening Standard Theatre Awards is Michael Kors. Other partners include Audi, Laurent-Perrier, Maison Margiela, Monica Vinader and Tommy Hilfiger.
For more from last night’s awards, go to standard.co.uk/theatreawards, #ESTheatre Awards
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