Beginner’s guide: London theatre awards

There are more theatre prizes blowing around than fallen leaves in London’s colder months. So Theo Bosanquet created a simple guide to London theatre awards, to help you understand who’s winning what.

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London Theatre Awards are as many and varied as the shows and performers they celebrate. From the big glitzy ceremonies to more intimate affairs, there’s an award ceremony to suit any taste.

At this time of year, when prizes, medals and statuettes are being handed out like Christmas presents, it’s handy to know what each award is about. Which is why we created this helpful guide:

Olivier Awards with MasterCard

The ‘big beast’ of the theatre awards jungle, the Oliviers are the West End’s equivalent of Broadway’s flagship Tony Awards. Founded in 1976 they were originally given the unfortunate acronym SWET (Society of West End Theatre) Awards. The Society of London Theatre rebranded the awards in 1984, when Laurence Olivier gave his blessing. The coveted statuettes feature a bust of Olivier as Henry V. They are given to winners in over 20 categories across theatre, dance and opera. They’re judged by a panel comprising a mix of industry figures and members of the public. In recent years they have been held at the Royal Opera House, though 2017’s ceremony was the first to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. Find out more.

London Theatre Awards Trivia: Early on the awards were known casually as the ‘Urnies’. This was due to the blue Wedgwood urn that was given to the winners.


Evening Standard Theatre Awards

The ‘Standards’ are London’s longest-established major theatre honour and were founded in 1955. Judged by a panel of critics and editors, the main awards include Best Director, Best Play and Most Promising Playwright. The number of one-off awards given has increased in recent years, overseen by the paper’s new owner – and theatre enthusiast – Evgeny Lebedev. Held in late November/early December, the glitzy ceremony marks the official start of awards season in theatreland. Find out more.

London Theatre Awards Trivia: The inaugural awards included a category for Most Controversial Play, which was given to Waiting For Godot. It has never been awarded since.


Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards

Kenneth Cranham and Denis Gough - winners at the 2016 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards
Kenneth Cranham and Denis Gough – winners at the 2016 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards

Members of the drama section of the Critics’ Circle choose these award winners. The Circle, by the way, is the membership organisation for professional critics. Their awards have been going since 1989. The Critics’ Circle named several gongs after previous members, including Jack Tinker and Peter Hepple. The award for Best Shakespearean Performance, instituted in memory of the husband and wife critics John and Wendy Trewin, was recently renamed the Trewin Medal following the death of their son Ion. Shows from across the entire UK are eligible, though winners tend to be rather London-centric. The critics give out their honours in January at a laid-back gathering often hosted by comedian Arthur Smith. Find out more.

London Theatre Awards Trivia: Critics, unsurprisingly, have an eye for spotting talent. Previous winners of the Most Promising Newcomer award include Sam Mendes, Rachel Weisz, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Eddie Redmayne and Denise Gough.


WhatsOnStage Awards

Established by theatre website, the WOS Awards started life in 2001 when readers were asked to vote on that year’s Oliviers shortlists. The results differed wildly from the official ones, so the following year a separate set of nominees were put to the vote and trophies handed out. They are still the only major theatre awards to be voted for entirely by the public. WhatsOnStage announces the nominees in the first week of December, and the winners at the annual Awards Concert in February. Previous hosts have included James Corden, Sheridan Smith, Rufus Hound and Mel Giedroyc. Find out more.

London Theatre Awards Trivia: In 2015, Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Miss Saigon set the record for the most ever awards in a single year, winning nine categories.


Off-West End Awards (‘Offies’)

The youngest of the awards in our round-up, the ‘Offies’ are a worthy newcomer that shine a spotlight on – as the name suggests – non-West End theatres. Categories echo those of the more mainstream events, with a few notable twists including Best Artistic Director and the TBC award, for productions that ‘defy traditional categories’. A panel comprising critics and assessors, who see over 400 shows between them, decide the winners. The public gets to decide some of the awards including the all-important Best Theatre Bar. Find out more.

London Theatre Awards Trivia: To be eligible for consideration a production needs to have played a minimum of ten performances over at least a three-week period.


Peter Brook Empty Space Awards

These awards are named in honour of legendary director Peter Brook and his seminal 1968 book The Empty Space. They recognise pioneering work in small spaces that receive little or no public funding. Previous winners include The New Diorama Theatre in King’s Cross and the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. Legendary reviewer Blanche Marvin created the awards and hosts the annual ceremony, which, as well as delicious sandwiches, always features some words from Brook himself (or at least his representative).

London Theatre Awards Trivia: Founder Blanche Marvin claims that Tennessee Williams named the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire after her.