Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2008

The Donmar Warehouse is going to need a bigger mantel piece.

In a ceremony hosted by Richard Wilson at the Royal Opera House, the Covent Garden theatre netted four big wins at this year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Chiwetel Ejiofor won best actor for his captivating performance in Othello. It was a deserved win; Ejiofor made that difficult role his own and while Ewan MacGregor’s turn as Iago was predominantly responsible for the hype that saw coveted tickets changing hands on eBay for silly money, it was Ejiofor most people went home talking about.
Best actress was jointly awarded to Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack who co-starred in the Donmar’s excellent revival of Enid Bagnold’s 1950s play The Chalk Garden. The interplay between the two actresses elevated what might merely have been a solid production into something quite wonderful and it seems fitting that they were both recognized. The third nominee in that category was Lesley Sharpe for her performance in the title role in Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan. Elena Roger’s superb turn in the otherwise mediocre revival of Piaf was notable by its omission.

The Donmar’s artistic director Michael Grandage won Best Director in recognition of three superb productions. Grandage directed both Ejiofor’s Othello and The Chalk Garden as well as the acclaimed production of Chekhov’s Ivanov, starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role, that is just finishing its run at Wyndham’s Theatre as part of the Donmar West End season.

The Young Vic was also successful. Their production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, won Best Musical despite only being staged for a very short period. It beat more high profile musical productions like Marguerite. The National’s production of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters won Best Play. Though the competition in this category was pretty stiff, with the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch and Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later also nominated, Hall’s play stood above them both. The former, though striking in so many ways and rightly acclained, stays in the memory more for its innovative staging than for the play itself, and Shinn’s topical play, set on the eve of the US presidential election, though fascinating and complex, felt a little too abrupt. In Pitmen Hall managed to create something that was both intellectually and theatrically satisfying, a play of ideas yet one that was shot through with passion. After selling out in the Cottesloe earlier this year, The Pitmen Painters returns to the National in 2009.

The Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright went to Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the 28-year-old author of In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size, both of which were staged at the Young Vic. The other playwrights on the shortlist were Bola Agbaje and Anupama Chandreskhar.

The Outstanding Newcomer award went to Ella Smith for her role in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, not a huge surprise perhaps, as there wasn’t a single review that didn’t single her out for praise among the four-man cast, but still a welcome win. This was also one of the few prizes that went to a big West End show rather than a production in the subsidized sector. The other went to designer Neil Murray for his work on Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter.

The Editor’s Award went to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the transfer of its eight-play Histories cycle to the Roundhouse, undoubtedly one of the theatrical events of the year. There was a special award for Kevin Spacey for bringing “new life to the Old Vic”.

The judging panel for the Evening Standard Awards is made of critics: the Mail on Sunday‘s Georgina Brown, The Observer‘s Susannah Clapp, The Times‘ Benedict Nightingale and the Daily Telegraph‘s Charles Spencer, as well as the Standard‘s very own Nicholas de Jongh.

The 2008 awards in full are as follows:

Best Play

The Pitmen Painters – by Lee Hall (National Theatre)

Best Actress

Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton – The Chalk Garden (Donmar Warehouse)

Best Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor – Othello (Donmar Warehouse)

Best Musical

Street Scene – The Opera Group, Young Vic and Watford Palace Theatre co-production

Best Director

Michael Grandage – Othello/The Chalk Garden/Ivanov (Donmar West End at Wyndham’s and Donmar Warehouse)

Best Design:

Neil Murray – Brief Encounter (Kneehigh at The Cinema, Haymarket)

Outstanding Newcomer

Ella Smith – Fat Pig (Trafalgar Studios and Comedy Theatre)

The Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright

Tarell Alvin McCraney – In The Red And Brown Water/The Brothers Size (Young Vic)

Editor’s Award

RSC – the Histories cycle (Roundhouse)

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