Joyous and emotional: inside the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards

The Evening Standard Theatre Awards returned last night after a two-year pandemic-enforced break, in a night that reflected the strength of London’s theatre recovery

The 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards ceremony was an emotional affair last night. Dame Vanessa Redgrave spoke movingly about her father. Stephen Graham said of Jodie Comer: “Our kid f***ing smashed it.” Producer and theatre owner Nica Burns declared: “We are bloody good at what we do.”

The country’s oldest theatrical awards, established in 1955, were back after a two-year pandemic hiatus, like the industry they salute. The awards, in association with Garrard, were hosted by the paper’s owner Lord Lebedev at the Ivy in West Street.

The strength of London theatre’s recovery was reflected in a list of winners not only rich in star power but also unusually young and diverse. James McAvoy, 43, won the Best Actor Award and Comer, 29, the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, for their extraordinary performances in, respectively, Cyrano de Bergerac and Prima Facie, both at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Both are from working-class backgrounds, in Glasgow and Liverpool.

McAvoy could not attend as he was filming in Italy. But Sheridan Smith, who compered the evening and is herself soon to return to the West End in a production of Willy Russell’s classic Shirley Valentine, read out a message from him to all present: “Drink something toxic and get your dance on.”

Killing Eve star Comer spoke about how Prima Facie had changed her personally and professionally. Before appearing in this one-woman show on sexual assault and the law, she had only been on stage once before — next year she takes Prima Facie to Broadway.

“It’s probably the thing I am proudest of in my life and winning this award means a lot,” she said, having received the statuette from her friend and mentor, Graham.

Lynette Linton, 32, won the Milton Shulman Award for Best Director, named after the Standard’s former theatre and film critic, for her production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky at the National Theatre. She is only the sixth woman — and the first woman of colour — to triumph in the directing category since it was introduced in 1981. “I’m a bit emotional about it because it hasn’t really sunk in properly,” she said. She paid tribute to earlier black theatre artists who had blazed a trail for her.

Samira Wiley, Giles Terera and Ronke Adékoluejo from her show’s cast were nominated in the acting categories, and the Bush Theatre, where she is artistic director, received four nominations across the shortlist.

Tyrell Williams’s Red Pitch — about three young black teenagers navigating friendship, adulthood and gentrification on a London housing estate football field — was unprecedentedly nominated for Best Play as well as winning the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright.

Williams, 28, rooted the drama in his own memories of playing football on the Aylesbury Estate, where he still lives. “To win this is an honour, and great for my career, going forward,” he said. The prize was given by Dame Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, artistic director and global content adivser of Condé Nast, in memory of her father.

A former editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Wintour created the Theatre Awards when he was the paper’s deputy editor in 1955.

The Emerging Talent Award, usually given to an actor, this year went to Isobel McArthur, the adapter, co-director and star of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of). Telling Jane Austen’s story through the medium of karaoke and the viewpoint of the servants, the production transferred from Glasgow to delight audiences at the Criterion. “It represents a transition for me into something more Britain-wide in terms of recognition,” says McArthur, 33, who previously trained and worked in Scotland.

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, initially starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, became one of the most talked about shows in the West End as theatre returned. Its glorious look landed Tom Scutt the award for Best Design. “I really feel very privileged and grateful to be able to accept it on the behalf of all the people there,” Scutt said. “There is extraordinary power to this level of collaboration, which you always strive for but which doesn’t often happen.”

If the Bush had a good year, so too did the Young Vic. The south London powerhouse snagged the transfer from New York of the so-called “sexy” Oklahoma!, which chiseled the cosy accretions off Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical to reveal it as something passionate, stark and dark.

Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s show began life as a production for students directed by Fish at NY’s Bard College 15 years ago. The London iteration, featuring a mixed British and American cast, was named Best Musical last night, two months before its West End transfer. Patrick Vaill, 36, who has played the menacing Jud Fry in each version of the show since 2007 and is the only remaining original cast member, took home the Best Musical Performance Award. “To be received by the audience and the city in this way is beyond anybody’s reasonable expectation of life,” he said.

The Young Vic also had the year’s undisputed Best Play. James Graham’s Best of Enemies traces the current collapse of political commentary back to the adversarial coverage of the 1968 Presidential debates by William F Buckley and Gore Vidal.

It was the shoo-in from the start, and received the award on top of five-star reviews for the West End transfer of Jeremy Herrin’s production. “I still have all the insecurities and the imposter syndrome that any writer has so it’s very nice to be recognised,” Graham, 40, said. He also delivered the magnificent musical Tammy Faye about televangelism in Eighties America this year, and entertained TV viewers in recent years with Sherwood and Quiz.

A dynamic set of winners was capped by special awards given by Lord Lebedev to recognise two individuals’ contribution to London theatre.

The first was to Dame Vanessa Redgrave, who made her acting debut in 1958 and returned to the stage almost immediately after lockdown ended, aged 85, in My Fair Lady at the Coliseum. Introduced by her daughter Joely Richardson, Dame Vanessa made a passionate speech about the craft and community of acting, and remembered her father Sir Michael Redgrave.

The second special award was to Nica Burns, the chief executive officer and co-owner of Nimax, which owns six West End Theatres and was the first group to reopen its venues at each relaxation of lockdown restrictions. Burns, 68, has also just opened the first purpose-built West End theatre for 50 years, the @sohoplace Theatre. “Let’s say it, we are bloody good at what we do,” she told the appreciative crowd in the Ivy’s private dining room. “We entertain people.”

At the close of a joyful and sometimes raucous evening, Lord Lebedev said: “I am delighted to celebrate the best of London theatre together with the talented writers, actors, directors and producers who brought the West End back to life. I am also glad to rekindle one of the paper’s greatest traditions, one I have sorely missed these past pandemic years.”