'Hairspray,' 'War Horse' top theater event

“Like Daniel Radcliffe‘s trousers, we have a lot to pack in.” So said Richard E. Grant, whose Olivier Awards hosting spiel made up for in due dispatch what it lacked in subtlety. Grant kept things moving at such a brisk pace that for possibly the first time ever, an awards show finished half an hour earlier than advertised.

Few of the decisions were unexpected but, unsurprisingly, not everyone was happy with the choices made. It was hard not be touched by the brave faces at the “Parade” table, given that the Donmar Warehouse production lost out seven times, including six to big winners “Hairspray” and “War Horse,” respectively with four and two kudos apiece .

“War Horse,” of course, is not a musical, but in all technical categories, including direction, the Oliviers lump plays and musicals together. The committee believes the job is the same for both forms. Try telling that to a sound designer. Paul Arditti and Jocelyn Pook‘s win for “Saint Joan” was richly deserved, but designing the sound for a drama and miking a musical are vastly different jobs.

And exactly how much sense does it make to force judges to choose between the splendid giant horse puppet movement on “War Horse” and, say, the dance numbers in “Hairspray”?

The argument always proffered for not separating the craft contributions on musicals and plays is to keep the awards’ running-time tight. But the Oliviers don’t need a cutoff point for broadcast because they haven’t been televised in years. And given that this is supposed to be the industry’s big night, at which people are rewarded for their finest work, wouldn’t it be better to put them into categories properly respectful of their roles?

After all, the Olivier judges did see fit to honor the year’s slew of outstanding debuts by creating a new category: best newcomer in a play. With that in mind, it’s time the committee sorted out the anomaly whereby actors in supporting roles face the stiffest competition.

Once upon a time, there were prizes for supporting actor and actress. No more. Since 2003, both genders have unfairly slugged it out together.

If, for the sake of argument, we say the average cast size — minus the leading player — of the average 80 eligible plays is a conservative five, that means judges have to choose just one performance from some 400 candidates. That way invidiousness, if not downright madness, lies.

Unless there is a bout of collective madness — always a possibility with the Oliviers — the Kneehigh Theater’s “Brief Encounter” is going to be in serious contention for awards next year. Mind you, the committee will have a field day trying to categorize the show. Best revival? Best comedy? Who can tell?

What’s certain is that producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers are looking at a hit. The show has been registering 98% business, and although the top ticket price is now only £39.50 ($79.29) (most plays are $20 higher) the advance in the 443-seat venue has reached $1.5 million.

As Pugh told Variety, “We’ve extended two months through Sept. 21 and we’re looking to recast after that.”

So is there hope for the — count ‘em — 19 U.S. producers (including hotly tipped Scott Rudin) circling the project? Yes, but not so fast. In the fall, the show’s helmer, Emma Rice, will be directing Kneehigh actors in “Don John” (a version of the Don Juan story) at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thereafter, the plan is to take the company to Sydney. From there, subject to Equity agreeing to allow it as a company show, “Brief Encounter” would go to New York.

In the meantime, Pugh and Rogers have the small matter of Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Greig, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott opening March 25 in the U.K. preem of Yasmina Reza’s “The God of Carnage.” The play, about two sets of sophisticated, bourgeois parents whose facades begin to crack when they meet to sort out the repercussions of their fighting children, premiered early in 2007 in Zurich. The playwright’s own production, starring Isabelle Huppert, is running in Paris.

The London production, however, reunites Pugh, Rogers and Reza with director Matthew Warchus, translator Christopher Hampton, designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and composer Gary Yershon. That team of eight last worked together on “Art.”

Sounds like a good omen.

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