It’s hard to single out the best moment of the 67th Evening Standard Theatre Awards, co-hosted by the Standard’s owner Lord Lebedev and Ian McKellen at Claridge’s last night. Was it when Nicole Scherzinger said “I’m low-key crapping myself right now” on accepting her Best Musical Performance Award for Sunset Boulevard?
Was it Sir Sam Mendes describing the theatre world as the family he never had growing up? Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan hearing they’d jointly won the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, for their performances as sisters Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire? Elton John declaring it “the gayest moment ever” when he was presented with a special award by Boy George and Jake Shears.
Whichever moment tickled your particular fancy, this was a joyful event where London’s newspaper celebrated the talent, the self-mocking humour and above all the camaraderie of London theatre. It began with presenter Susan Wokoma spoofing the dressing-room-to-stage video sequence that features in Sunset Boulevard.
And it ended, in formal terms at least, with a tribute to the unsung and often unseen contribution musicians make to shows, at which a band hidden in the crowd sprang to life for a musical medley. The after party and the after-after party went on into the small hours of course. As well as recognising excellence, the UK’s oldest drama awards are a chance for a lot of glorious, glamorous people to come together and have fun.
Scherzinger spoke emotionally about how she’d been accepted by London’s theatre community when she was cast as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Jamie Lloyd, who took the Milton Shulman Award for Best Director. The award is named for the Standard’s former theatre critic.
Lloyd said his leading lady had “given us a performance for the ages”. Sunset Boulevard was pipped to the Best Musical Award, however, by Nicholas Hytner’s breathtaking, immersive revival of Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Hytner thanked his cast, crew, and the willing participation of the audience for “making it so much fun”.
Andrew Scott scored his second ESTA Best Actor award for his one-man Chekhov adaptation Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Sam Yates, having previously won in 2019 for Present Laughter at the Old Vic. He was unable to attend last night’s ceremony due to film commitments in Los Angeles, but in a speech read out by Jenna Coleman, he said: “I’m truly thrilled. Long live London theatre, and theatre everywhere.”
Elton John and Ruth Wilson each received a special Editor’s award from the Standard’s new Editor-in-chief, Dylan Jones OBE. Wilson’s was for her extraordinary 24-hour performance The Second Woman at the Young Vic, where she performed the same scene 100 times with 100 different men, most of them amateurs (including ES Magazine Editor Ben Cobb, who, she wickedly recalled, she “dragged to the floor by his Gucci tie”). Elton John was honoured for bringing his collaborative musical spirit to theatre, most recently on Tammy Faye, created with Jake Shears and writer James Graham.
Wilson was presented with her statuette by Tom Hiddleston and described The Second Woman as “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life”. Elton John said that at 76 he was still learning about art, music and collaboration, and that those involved in the theatre should feel proud. “It brings joy, and in this world today that’s what we need.”
Sir Sam Mendes received the special Lebedev Award for his contribution to theatre over four decades during which he ran the Donmar Warehouse, directed for the RSC and National Theatre, and conquered the West End and Broadway, while also evolving a peerless film career.
Mendes spoke movingly of how the pandemic had exposed the precarious existence of the freelance performers, other creatives and backstage staff who make the industry work. He announced that the Theatre Artists Fund he set up in 2020 would soon roll out a pilot programme securing two-year contracts for 20 theatre professionals in 15 partner theatres across the UK. He also paid tribute to his wife Alison Balsam, his producing partner Caro Newling, and — it was a recurring theme throughout the evening — to the tight-knit, supportive theatre community.
Jack Thorne’s drama The Motive and the Cue, which Mendes directed at the National Theatre and which tells the backstage story of John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, won the Best Play Award, and transfers next month to the West End. Thorne pointed out that Burton had been a lost child saved by a visionary teacher and insisted that drama in state schools should be protected.
One of the more emotional moments of the night came when Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan were named by David Tennant as joint winners of the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, presented this year in association with luxury ready-to-wear brand Mithridate.
Ferran famously stepped into the role of Blanche with a week’s notice after the original actress had to withdraw, learning the part and crafting an astonishing performance at lightning speed. But the judging panel felt Vasan’s spirited rendering of Stella played an equal part in putting Tennessee Williams’s sisters centre-stage. “This is honestly the best outcome,” said Ferran as the two women addressed the wildly applauding crowd together. “If I had won alone I would have given it to her,” said Vasan.
It was a good year for the Almeida, with nominations in multiple categories, including Tammy Faye for Best Musical and Sam Holcroft’s dystopian drama A Mirror for Best Play. Frecknall was nominated for the directing award for Streetcar, and her leading man Paul Mescal for Best Actor for his simmering, watchful performance as Stanley Kowalski.
Almeida boss Rupert Goold was shortlisted in the director category for his production of Dear England, James Graham’s drama about Gareth Southgate’s revival of the England Football team, at the National. The show was also nominated for Best Play, which Graham won last year for Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. This year, the National also received nominations for Paapa Essiedu as Best Actor and Taylor Russell for Emerging Talent in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, directed by the ever-busy Lloyd.
Guys and Dolls also received nods for Best Design (Bunny Christie), Best Musical Performance (Marisha Wallace) and Emerging Talent (Andrew Richardson, who made a bogglingly confident stage debut as Sky Masterson). Shows at the Barbican were nominated in three categories and new venue @sohoplace scored a Best Actress nod for Sophie Okonedo’s laceratingly raw Medea.
The Bush theatre in west London dominated The Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright with two nominations out of four. The category is named for the Evening Standard’s former editor, who created the awards in 1955 when he was deputy editor. It is supported by Dame Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, artistic director and global content adviser of Condé Nast, in memory of her father.
This year it went to Isley Lynn for The Swell, her study of a relationship between three women across many decades, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Further proof that theatre is flourishing outside the big venues and mid-scale powerhouses came when Georgia Lowe scooped the Best Design Award for her witty sets for The Good Person of Szechwan at the Lyric Hammersmith.
The Emerging Talent Award went to the writer, singer, and composer Tatenda Shamiso for his one-person show about gender transition, NO I.D. at the Royal Court. The diminutive polymath joked that the statuette was almost as big as him.
Susan Wokoma was a deliciously witty host, mock-complaining that she’d not been cast in any of the shortlisted shows. Guests drank Laurent-Perrier champagne and Bird in Hand wine throughout dinner and Eight Lands vodka cocktails were served after the ceremony.
In his welcoming speech Lord Lebedev praised those who kept the flame of London theatre alive during the pandemic and enabled it to surge back to life. He described theatre as “an alchemy” which creates new worlds for audiences to escape into and told the happy crowd: “I want to say on everybody’s behalf, thank you.”
Judges on the panel for the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards were Baz Bamigboye, Sarah Crompton, Nick Curtis, Farah Najib, Alice Saville and Matt Wolf and it was chaired by Evening Standard Culture Editor Nancy Durrant. The Awards were held at Claridge's on Sunday November 19; winners were transported there in sustainable style by Polestar