66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards Special Award winners Vanessa Redgrave and Nica Burns on theatre’s future

·7-min read
Nica Burns  (PA)
Nica Burns (PA)

When the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in association with Garrard took place earlier this month after a two-year pandemic hiatus, the paper’s owner, Lord Lebedev, handed out two special awards.

As in previous years, these were chosen to salute those who have made – and continue to make – an outstanding contribution to British theatre. But this year they also recognised individuals who fought for the art form and kept its spirit alive during the pandemic.

Covid forced a disparate and diffuse industry – a mixture of commercial, state-subsidised and fringe organisations, mostly staffed by freelancers working in financially draining buildings – to pull together. “When we went into lockdown we were a pretty fantastically un-joined up industry,” the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris said when we spoke in November 2020, on the brink of a promised but ultimately short-lived reopening for the sector.

He cited commercial producer Sonia Friedman and Julian Bird, chief executive of industry body the Society of London Theatre, as the driving forces who pressed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for support. Friedman lobbied for the industry in the media and behind the scenes, helped shape DCMS policy, and devised new producing models under lockdown, initially on screen and then through West End stagings of The Comeback (by comedy duo The Pin) and the Re: Emerge season of three new plays by emerging playwrights.

Dame Vanessa Redgrave at the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Lucy Young)
Dame Vanessa Redgrave at the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Lucy Young)

Norris himself kept the National producing, though each show he planned seemed to run into a new tightening of restrictions. Sir Sam Mendes set up the Theatre Artists Fund with support from Netflix, which raised £7.8m and disbursed grants to 8,294 struggling freelancers in the sector. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman set up the Theatre Community Fund, receiving donations from fellow stars who wanted to put something back into the industry that had nurtured them.

There are countless other names, whether famous or little-known, who stood up or dug deep for theatre, who made work under impossible conditions, who kept our empty playhouses safe and ensured the sector could come roaring back.

One tenacious and impressive figure during that time was Dame Vanessa Redgrave. Then aged 83 and suffering seriously reduced lung capacity, the great actress kicked off a series of speeches around the country in late 2020 with a passionate defence of the arts at the National Theatre.

“We keep going, keep acting, keep trying to be helpful. That’s our role,” she told me back then. Once lockdown fully ended, Redgrave was among the first back on stage, playing Henry Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady at the Coliseum earlier this year, 65 years after her professional debut in 1957. She was finally made a Dame in October and received the first of this year’s two special Evening Standard Awards this month.

Nica Burns at the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Dave Benett)
Nica Burns at the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Dave Benett)

“I was thrilled to be in My Fair Lady, but every job is important to me,” she says. She is still ready for work, and still campaigning. “We’ve just had a terrible round of cuts,” she says, referring to recent, brutal changes in Arts Council England’s funding of theatre and opera. “Theatre is in a terrible state. That’s where the Evening Standard’s support can make a difference.”

The second special award was given to Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theatres which owns the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess Theatres. A producer as well as a theatre owner and a former actress, Burns told me right at the start of lockdown that she was keeping her playhouses’ marquee lights on as a symbol of hope.

Nimax was the first group to reopen at each stage of the pandemic, often operating at a loss, with Burns bringing a host of new producers and performers into the West End with her Rising Stars festival in 2021.

We spoke regularly during these trying times and she was a vital, positive force for the industry. Meanwhile, she was also quietly supervising the construction of the first purpose-built theatre in the West End for 50 years, the 600-seat, in-the-round @sohoplace theatre at Tottenham Court Road, which opened last month and is currently home to Josie Rourke’s new production of As You Like It starring Leah Harvey, Rose Ayling-Ellis, Alfred Enoch and Martha Plimpton.

Vanessa Redgrave and Amara Okereke in My Fair Lady (Marc Brenner)
Vanessa Redgrave and Amara Okereke in My Fair Lady (Marc Brenner)

“I am so thrilled and absolutely deeply honoured to receive an Evening Standard Award,” says Burns, 68. “It’s a really lovely thing to have recognition after two very, very hard years, keeping up the positivity and driving forward to try and get through the pandemic and get back to as normal a life as possible.” Lockdowns cost Nimax millions in lost revenue from the likes of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but also in maintenance for its venerable buildings. Did she ever despair? “No, not for one second,” she says. “I always believed theatre would come back.”

The Rising Stars festival was an artistic and financial risk: instead of charging rent for the theatres, Burns brokered a box office split with the 19 new producers and kept ticket prices low. “The only thing I wanted was to not lose any more money than being closed,” she says, “and it sold a lot more tickets than we expected.” Many of those new producers have now stepped up a level. Nimax held on to all its long-term, permanent staff through Covid, though Burns mourns the loss of many freelancers and specialist businesses from the industry: “We have lost so many trained, brilliant people.”

If keeping her lights on was a small gesture of faith in the industry, building a new theatre in partnership with Derwent PLC was a bigger one. “The build was massively technically complicated because we are on top of three tube lines, and there were huge problems getting goods into the country,” she says. “The government owns the freehold but I’ve got a 125-year-lease, which I think should see me out.” The interior colour scheme of the new building and its embracing auditorium are inspired by a twilight visit Burns paid to the great amphitheatre of Epidaurus 30 years ago, in her acting days.

@sohoplace theatre (@sohoplace)
@sohoplace theatre (@sohoplace)

Although @sohoplace’s name and its glassy exterior have received criticism (including from me) the auditorium is beautiful and completely insulated from train noise, and there’s a wonderful rooftop rehearsal room. “There are only 13 purpose-built in-the-round theatres in the UK – though there are some flexible spaces – but we are unique,” says Burns. “It is curved all the way round, which is much more expensive but gives you what we call – technical term – ‘the hug’. Everyone feels more included and the audience feel at one the moment they sit down.”

She adds that “you can certainly blame me for the name” before making a case for it. Soho is a worldwide byword for entertainment, sexiness and fun, and the one-mile-square district now has a theatre at each corner again (the others being the Piccadilly, Palace and Palladium: @sohoplace supplants gig venue the Astoria, which stood nearby but was demolished for Crossrail).

Rather than opening onto crowded Charing Cross Road, the entrance and bar look out on a pedestrianised plaza (also called Soho Place) leading into Soho Square. She hopes it will be a meeting place and a gateway for “the 25,000 people coming out of Tottenham Court Road Station every half hour or so”. Everyone uses their phones to book tickets today, hence the “@” prefix.

Most importantly, @sohoplace fills in the missing piece of the theatreland puzzle; large enough to warrant the expense of a large cast, intimate and flexible enough to take transfers from smaller venues. “We spoke to lots of creatives about what they felt would be an addition to the West End,” says Burns. “It’s not there to compete directly with any other venue. And I’m not going to consider it to be successful and ready for years yet. It will evolve.”

Is it also the last piece of her theatrical empire, I ask? “Do you mean: am I finished?” she says. “The answer’s no.”

As You Like It is at @sohoplace until January 28; buy tickets here