London incarnation wins top musical prize

“Swimming With Sharks” opened too late for consideration for this year’s Evening Standard Theater Awards, but if there were a prize for best speech, the show’s star, Christian Slater, would have run away with it.

Mounting the podium to present the design award at the Nov. 27 kudos, Slater explained to the assembled theater luminaries that he had memorized a relevant speech but said, pausing to brandish a sheet of paper and give everyone a beady stare, “they have given me this.”

Slater then proceeded in deliciously droll, eyebrow-raised fashion to recite his ineptly supplied, platitudinous awards speech, replete with supposedly idiosyncratic tailorings like the gratuitous use of the word “guys,” as if issuing forth from a hip Hollywood actor. Cue embarrassment for whichever unfortunate Evening Standard hack had penned the offending item.

The actual award, rightly, went to Rae Smith and the Handspring Puppet Company for their work on the ravishing “War Horse,” a frankly unparalleled harnessing of set, costume, light and sound design telling a two-and-a-half-hour story in which the central character does not speak.

Unlike most of the winners, that show is still running, although its success means the extended run is entirely sold out except for the couple of rows available on the morning of each performance. Unsurprisingly, its directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris are already looking to revive it next Christmas.

The duo lost out on the director award to Rupert Goold, who won for his New York-bound “Macbeth.” Elliott, however, had the comfort not only of having won last year, but having her praises sung in heartfelt fashion by Anne-Marie Duff, who picked up actress honors for her incandescent performance in Elliott’s “Saint Joan.”

Of the nine awards, only the musical prize — won by “Hairspray” — was conceived within the commercial sector. Everything else came from the subsidized theaters. Even “Macbeth,” which also garnered an actor win for Patrick Stewart, came from regional venue Chichester Festival Theater before being picked up by Duncan C. Weldon and Paul Elliott for Triumph Entertainment.

The event’s smartest decision was its least contested: the special award presented to architect Stephen Tompkins. His rebuilding of some of London’s key theaters including the Young Vic and, most recently, the National Theater Studio has been nothing short of inspirational. Where other recent London theater renovations have been efficient but anodyne, Tompkins has consistently realized not just the needs but also the dreams of both artists and audiences.

Another of Tompkins’ buildings, the Royal Court, hosted two of the three noms for most promising playwright. The winner, Polly Stenham, is already dealing with the fact that at least five New York producers are trying to get their hands on her emotionally complex “That Face.”

 

The Court is likely to be in contention for the same prize next year, thanks to young Indian writer Anupama Chandrasekhar‘s assured debut, “Free Outgoing.” Despite coming from a culture almost devoid of Western theater — Chandrasekhar has seen little but read a lot — her instincts are thrillingly dramatic.

Tiresome exposition is nowhere to be found in her tight, headlong drama, which explodes out of a secret video made by a well-behaved Indian girl that spreads like wildfire across the nation, sparking political outrage and personal threat.

In the faultlessly acted production, directed with accuracy and zest by Indhu Rubasingham, every scene starts at an emotional crunchpoint. And for a timely play dealing effortlessly with conservatism, technology, personal freedom and sexuality, it never once feels burdened by its issues. There’s already talk of the production returning. It can’t come too soon.

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