National Theatre's revival of 1939 drama is night's biggest success, alongside Legally Blonde and Stephen Sondheim
A Terence Rattigan play that closed early and was largely neglected for 70 years until its revival at the National Theatre emerged as the biggest winner at last night's 2011 Olivier theatre awards. After the Dance, which portrays a group of bright young things getting older but still drinking and partying as the nation slides to war, won four awards including best revival. The National was the biggest winner, with seven prizes overall. This is Rattigan's centenary year and there are revivals of his plays across the country, including the wartime tearjerker Flare Path, which opened to loud audience cheers last week.
Last night's other big winners at an unashamedly showbizzy ceremony in the West End were Legally Blonde, the Musical – and Stephen Sondheim.
After the Dance opened in June 1939 to good reviews but closed early as the country's mood changed, and it has been staged only rarely since. The play's director, Thea Sharrock, said it had not been easy to get such a little-known play staged. The National's Nicholas Hytner initially declined. "He said: 'No, I don't think so, but let's try and find something else.'" Hytner changed his mind after re-reading the play. "At which point I got really nervous and said: 'Can I go away and think about it?' By hook or by crook it happened," she said.
Its four awards included best actress for a pregnant Nancy Carroll, whose portrayal of the socialite Joan Scott-Fowler was described as "magnificent" by the Guardian and "almost unbearably moving" by the Telegraph.
Adrian Scarborough won best actor in a supporting role for his performance as a drunken hanger-on, and Hildegard Bechtler won for best costume design.
The National won three awards for its production of The White Guard, including best director for Howard Davies, best lighting for Neil Austin, and best set design for Bunny Christie.
One of the strongest-contested categories was best actor, with Derek Jacobi nominated for King Lear and Rory Kinnear for Hamlet. The winner, from a shortlist that also included Mark Rylance and David Suchet, was Roger Allam as Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2 at the Globe. He called the role "a middle-aged man's Hamlet" and paid tribute to the Globe's pricing policy, which includes many £5 seats. "I remember as a teenager going to the Old Vic when Laurence Olivier was running the National Theatre and being able to sit on a bench for 15 pence. The price of a tube fare. I saw Olivier, for goodness sake, playing Shylock for 15 pence."
The portrayal by Sheridan Smith of the sorority queen Elle in Legally Blonde won her best actress in a musical. Jill Halfpenny, who played hairdresser Paulette, won best supporting performer in a musical, while the production itself won best new musical.
The production seems to be doing better in London than it did on Broadway. "British audiences just took to it," said Smith. "It's credit crunch, terrible weather and all you want to do is have two and a half hours of escapism."
Sondheim, who turned 80 last year, was presented with the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award by Cameron Mackintosh and Angela Lansbury, while productions of his work also took prizes. Into the Woods, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, was named best musical revival, and David Thaxton won best actor in a musical for Passion at the Donmar Warehouse.
As widely tipped, Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, which opened at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End, won best new play. The theatre won three prizes in total, with Michelle Terry named best supporting actress in a play for Tribes, and Leon Baugh taking the theatre choreography award for Sucker Punch.
Organisers of this year's ceremony had tried to give it more pizzazz. It was held in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, rather than a hotel ballroom, with performances by entertainers including Barry Manilow. It was also broadcast live for the first time, via the BBC's red button.
The awards were decided by panels, apart from an audience prize voted for by Radio 2 listeners which pitted long-running musicals against each other. We Will Rock You emerged as the winner from a list that included Jersey Boys, Les Miserables and Billy Elliot the Musical.
The Railway Children, which was performed at Waterloo station, won best entertainment.
There had been annoyance among the dance community that the shortlist for outstanding achievement contained no actual dance performances and the winner last night was the artist Antony Gormley, for his set designs for Babel (Words) at Sadler's Wells, a show that also won best new dance production.
The German baritone Christian Gerhaher won an outstanding achievement award for his performance in Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House, while OperaUpClose's La Bohème at the Soho Theatre sprang a surprise by winning best new opera production. The show, which originally played to 35 people at The Cock Tavern, beat productions at the Royal Opera House and Coliseum.
Soho Theatre's Steve Marmion paid tribute to the awards for helping promote such productions at a "time of enormous ideological and brutal cuts to the arts."
The Lyric Hammersmith's revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted won outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre, while the Donmar's King Lear won for sound design.