Olivier Awards 2023

Hire a host; tell a few jokes; sing the songs; give out the awards. We can and will quibble over the actual awards, but it’s hard to argue with a show that pretty much did the thing it was supposed to.

The 2023 Olivier Awards left me generally elated. Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Prima Facie, My Neighbour Totoro and A Streetcar Named Desire all got the gongs they deserved.

But organisers need to slice proceedings – feed everyone – get back to basics, broadcast it live and start it earlier in the day.

For, it’s no exaggeration to say, the live ceremony was simply too clunking at over three and a half hours.

Neat host Hannah Waddingham wore a stunning array of outfits (four in total) and opened this year’s ceremony with the awards’ first ever original musical number, written by Pippa Cleary, who wrote The Great British Bake Off Musical.

It all added up to an event to remember and that would’ve been way beyond the ability of any other living British musical theatre star.

Ted Lasso star Waddingham started her acting career in musical theatre, and it showed.

“I hope I’ve earned my supper,” said Waddingham. She did that in spades.

So in the spirit of the night’s big — and big-hearted — winners, let’s get on with the highlights.

It was great to see Paul Mescal win best actor for his brutal, mesmerising performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Streetcar director Rebecca Frecknall, collecting Best Revival, paid tribute to the show’s creator: “I just have to thank Tennessee Williams, really. He gave us magic instead of realism, and that’s what we needed.”

As for Jodie Comer winning best actress in Prima Facie – my personal preference would have been for Patsy Ferran’s complex turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. But Comer gave a spirited, theatrical and highly watchable performance and she radiates star quality. The courtroom drama opens on Broadway next week.

In total the Almeida landed six awards. Will Keen bagged best supporting actor for his role in Patriots, and Tammy Faye snatched two awards: Katie Brayben for best actress in a musical and Zubin Varla for best supporting actor in a musical.

The biggest winner of the night, however,  was the RSC’S enchanting My Neighbour Totoro, an adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s 1989 anime film. Best Director was awarded to Phelim McDermott.

My Neighbour Totoro also went on to take the much sought after Best Entertainment or Comedy award. The magical show returns to the Barbican later this year.

Across the decades Standing at the Sky’s Edge, set on a Sheffield council estate and based on the music of Richard Hawley, won Mastercard Best New Musical.

The brilliant show, that I first saw at Crucible Theatre in 2019, recently finished a sell-out run at the National Theatre, also led to Hawley and Tom Deering taking home the award for best original score or new orchestrations.

Thrillingly, Standing At The Sky’s Edge will transfer to the Gillian Lynne Theatre, in London’s West End, from February 2024. It is a wonderful show.

And yes, Magic FM had to apologise for the rock star’s bad language. Hawley, ignoring his designated 40 second acceptance slot, eventually proclaimed: ‘Sheffield, we love you! Will you marry us?

Rock ’n’ roll, people. Rock. And. Roll.

Elsewhere, Sir Derek Jacobi was given the lifetime achievement award for his contribution to theatre. Jacobi told The Guardian that instead of risking becoming “elitist” through high ticket prices, theatre should be easily accessible and “part of our blood and bones”.

Jacobi added, the industry was in danger of being left up a certain “creek without a paddle”, and he had been shocked to see prices of £150 or more for a seat in the stalls in London’s West End. Me too.

That being said, winners Arthur Darvill, Chris Bush and Beverley Knight called out the government for not prioritising youth theatre and for failing to see its value in shaping cultural careers.

Knight, who performed twice, won best supporting actress in a musical for her performance as Emmeline Pankhurst in Sylvia at the Old Vic.

Theatre, she said, has often been seen as the preserve “of the middle classes and upwards, dominated by people who are mainly white – and who are older because they’re the ones who can afford it”

The government must not think of theatre as “something frivolous”, she said: “You don’t know what the arts does for kids.”

Her comment is one that should be addressed urgently by educationists, arts bodies and politicians alike.

Until next year…

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Suzie Miller: “Don’t give up. If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.” 

When Prima Facie hits our cinemas next month cinemas as part of NT Live to see Jodie Comer’s sell-out West End debut the play’s writer Suzie Miller will be watching intently to see how it translates from stage to screen. Prima Facie shines a light on the Australian legal system. Around 60,000 people shared in Tessa’s story at the Harold Pinter Theatre – from 21st July the conversation continues with the rest of the world.

Suzie Miller © by Helen Murray

We are talking on the telephone, a couple of weeks after Opening Night, in which Comer received rave reviews. “I just think that NT Live is such a wonderful thing, it makes theatre accessible to everyone and is an astonishing leveller and the ultimate invite to experience theatre filmed,” Miller says.

An Australian-British criminal defence lawyer working in the human rights sector, writer Miller witnessed first-hand how the Legal System fails most sexual assault victims. She studied while working as a lawyer and left the bar to be a full-time playwright in 2010.  

“The play began when I was studying criminal law and how it is structures and thinking there’s something about the way sexual assault that is doesn’t feel right – as went through my practice in law it continued to come through to me that it just wasn’t working for victims,” Miller tells me.

Due process is everything: “I was and still am committed to the concept of innocence until proven guilty. I also think that sexual assault is a special area that is not necessarily being catered to by a very male focussed legal system.”  

At almost 2 hours long and with no interval, the play packs a lot in. Essentially, a play about a lawyer who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault, until she is assaulted herself: the insecurities she’s faced, heartbreak, sexism, misogyny, being told to look and behave a certain way. 

I mention that Comer owned the courtroom; a theatre animal. “Jodie is such an incredible screen actress,” she says with some admiration. “It is astonishing how she stepped out on the stage (Comer had only been in one play before, in Scarborough, when she was 16) and become a theatre actor. I just think that she’s born to do theatre. She is incredible.” 

Suzie Miller with Jodie Comer © by Helen Murray

The play, it is fair to say, recieved a mixed reception here; some critics were not enthusiastic about the text itself. In a four-star review, the Evening Standard said: “Suzie Miller’s script is a great vehicle rather than a truly great play, however – shrewd and economical in its analysis of how the system treats assault survivors, but schematic in its plotting.”

The Guardian’s review stated that “[Comer] roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments,” and that the script “ falls into a loudly lecturing tone at the end.” 

I ask her how the critical and audience responses varied here to the Australia run. She responds pragmatically. “Somehow having a woman stand on stage and make a direct political address within the confines of her story, it is bordering on being a lecture,” she says. “Look at Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or Mark Rylance’s final speech in Jerusalem. Hailed as mesmerising. It seems to be something that some critics here are not used to. You know you’ve made a difference when the play is not just in the arts pages,” Miller says. 

Still, quibbles about polemic do not matter, Prima Facie was one of the hottest tickets in Europe; with Killing Eve star Comer attracting the mythical kind of post West End show frenzy not seen in years – and her legions of teenage fans love her. Truly.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

For Miller, though, the idea that someone is consenting unless they tell you that they are not “doesn’t fit with women’s lived experience” and she thinks that “something in the legal system is fundamentally broken.” It is hard to disagree. It becomes clear as we talk that this is a universal issue. 

In fact, figures released earlier this year showed that in the 12 months to September 2021, only 1.3% of the 63,136 rape offences recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged.

“I think what consent runs through everyone’s relationship and what sexual entitlement is and when it should be called out. It can also happen to anyone. So, it’s about a huge change and a group of Barrister’s are going out to schools to talk about consent which is fantastic,” Miller says.

Prima Facie has partnered with The Schools Consent Project and has given away free tickets to 10 partner school groups so that teachers can bring students to see the show and access further ancillary support. Funds have also been donated to support the essential work the charity does to educate young people in the UK about consent.

Set up in 2014 by barrister Kate Parker, The Schools Consent Project is a charity that sends lawyers into schools to teach young people (11–18-year-olds) the legal definition of consent. Their aim is to normalise these sorts of conversations; to empower young people to identify and communicate boundaries, and to respect them in others. To date, they have worked with over 20,000 young people across the country.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie © by Helen Murray

Miler believes a rich cultural education is key to changing the world: “It’s fundamental,” she tells me. “Theatre is the town square. It is so important – people can pretend to be other things, whilst an audience breathes in the same emotional mist. I feel like it offers a way of interpreting the world. A writer’s job is to show the paradox of being human. I went to law to change the world and now in theatre I still want to do that and make a difference.” 

So which writers inspire her? “Well, growing up I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was mentored by Edward Albee early in my career. All hail mighty Edward. Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes,”

Looking to the future, Comer will reprise her role in Prima Facie on Broadway. It will have a limited engagement at one of New York’s Shubert theaters, with the exact venue and dates to be announced. “It has been an absolute privilege to tell Tessa’s story here in London over the past few months and to now have the opportunity to take Prima Facie to New York is a dream come true,” said Comer in a recent statement.

With Prima Facie playwright Suzie Miller on Opening Night

In conversation Miller is as tranquil and delightful as she is compellingly eloquent. You’re relatively productive, I add. What’s your secret? “Don’t give up,’ she says quickly. “If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.”  

Prima Facie is released to cinemas around the world via NT Live and in association with Sky Arts on Thursday 21 July 2022.