An American classic directed by a Belgian and a musical about a very English rock band were the big winners at Britain’s Olivier theater awards Sunday — but it was an 89-year old theatrical Dame who brought the house down.
The Arthur Miller drama “A View From the Bridge” and The Kinks musical “Sunny Afternoon,” won the most prizes, and there were roars of approval when Angela Lansbury took the best supporting actress trophy for playing scatterbrained psychic Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s comedy “Blithe Spirit.”
“I am so infinitely grateful to have this baby in my hands. You have no idea,” said London-born Lansbury, who already has an honorary Oscar, five Tonys and a damehood, the female equivalent of a knighthood.
“Here I am creeping up to 90 and feeling like a million dollars,” said the “Murder, She Wrote” star, who first appeared onstage in the 1940s. She said theater is “life — and thank God I’m still in it.”
“Sunny Afternoon,” the story of 1960s rockers The Kinks, took four prizes including best new musical and acting trophies for John Dagleish and George Maguire, who play battling brothers Ray and Dave Davies. The real-life Ray Davies won the outstanding achievement in music prize for the play’s score.
He said the unruly North London lads in The Kinks were “four of the unlikeliest pop stars you”ll ever see.” “People are the source of my material,” said Davies, whose songs include “Sunny Afternoon,” ”Waterloo Sunset” and “Lola.”
“So the next time you’re sitting in a park somewhere and you see someone like me looking at you — don’t phone the police.” A bold, pared-down revival of “A View From the Bridge” won three prizes including best revival and best director, for Ivo van Hove.
Mark Strong was named best actor in a play for his slow-burning performance in Miller’s tragedy of blood and honor in Brooklyn. Strong said the response to the play from audience members had been incredible.
“They don’t just want autographs anymore,” he said. “They want to talk about what they’re seeing and they want to kind of compare their own experiences to what they’re seeing onstage.” Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” which imagines Prince Charles taking the throne with disastrous results, was named best new play.
“Thank you to the royal family for not closing us down for treason,” Bartlett said. Another king, Henry VIII, was also crowned with an Olivier. Nathaniel Parker was named best supporting actor for playing the monarch in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” saga, which has just transferred to Broadway.
“Downton Abbey” star Penelope Wilton was named best actress in a play for the Nazi-era drama “Taken at Midnight.” Rising star Katie Brayben won the prize for best actress in a musical for playing songwriter Carole King in “Beautiful.” Her co-star Lorna Want was named best supporting actress.
Founded in 1976, the awards honor achievements in London plays, musicals, dance and opera. Winners in most categories are chosen by a panel of stage professionals and theatergoers. The Oliviers have become an increasingly glitzy affair in recent years, awarded at a ceremony studded with musical numbers, modeled on Broadway’s Tonys. Celebrities on hand included Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, James McAvoy and pop star Nicole Scherzinger, who was nominated for her supporting role in “Cats.”
Beneath the glitz, many presenters and winners paid tribute to the grit and greasepaint of live theater. Several of the winning shows started in small, state-subsidized theaters which often take greater creative risks than commercial playhouses.
It was a good night for the Young Vic, a small venue which has recently attracted big stars including Gillian Anderson, a best-actress nominee for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The venue has been hailed as the best theater in London, but artistic director David Lan joked that it was merely “the best theater in Waterloo.”
Its rival in that south London neighborhood, the Old Vic, also got some recognition. Oscar-winning actor Spacey, who steps down later this year after a decade running the 200-year-old theater, received a special award for his contribution to the British stage.
“I love that theater more than I can begin to express to you,” Spacey said, before removing his jacket and tie, pulling out a harmonica and performing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with soul singer Beverley Knight — an unusual end to British theater’s big night.