Stars of the West End heralded the return of live theatre after long periods of Covid closures as the Olivier Awards kicked off in London.
The revival of hit musical Cabaret leads the nominations with 11 nods for the production starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, which transformed the West End’s Playhouse Theatre into the Kit Kat Club.
Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre and the classic musical revival of Anything Goes at the Barbican Theatre both have nine nominations each.
Beverley Knight, who is nominated for best actress in a musical for The Drifters Girl, said it was an “indescribable feeling” to return to the awards after such a difficult period for live theatre.
She told the PA news agency: “We have been bereft of theatre for so long, just had nothing, and people only realise the importance of the place that theatre and live entertainment played in any society when it was taken away.
“Then everyone was like ‘Oh, that’s what they do, that’s why it’s important’. So to be back to celebrate, it is incredible.”
She added: “We bring in multi-millions and that’s week in week out. So we are part of giving the economy buoyancy, but more than that, we feed the nation’s soul.
“How many people struggling with their mental health over the past two years turned to streaming services, whether it be music, or watching films, or documentaries or whatever?
“That’s what we do. That is our job, that’s where we step in. We are a night of escapism for so many people, whilst provoking people, getting them to think and entertaining them.”
West End star Ruthie Henshall added: “It is so wonderful to have all these amazing people in one room, to be able to look each other in the eyes and go ‘Wow, that was two years.’
“It’s incredible to think how many people had to do whatever they had to do to look after their families, because theatre was really left behind.
“There was no help for the theatre and theatre people and so the fact that we are back, we are here, we are celebrating, it is a beautiful thing for me, because I’ve watched people that one minute are on stage playing lead and the next they are driving vans and picking through.”
Anything Goes star Felicity Kendal said the last two years have been particularly difficult for young people starting out in the theatre.
She said: “We got no subsidy and the people, especially the young people who were starting out in the business, lost two years of their life, of their career life, and sometimes had to give up because there was nothing to do.
“A lot of really not-very-well-off actors, early on, they take on other jobs in restaurants but nothing was open.
“So they didn’t even have that and they didn’t have the security of jobs coming up. So it was really tough for us. But we are in showbiz and we just get on with it.”
Choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Dame Arlene Phillips said seeing theatres closed was “some of the hardest times I’ve been through emotionally”, adding: “It felt like everything was lost.”
She continued: “Performers were suffering, technicians, everybody working in the theatre industry was really suffering, not knowing what steps to take, what their futures would be, it was really hard.
“Also we lived in fear. I sanitised everything, day and night, nothing came into my house, I was afraid to pass people.
“After two years, I took a deep breath and thought I got through it. Until three weeks ago, I got Covid and it slammed me like I cannot even tell you and all I did was watch those two red lines in a state of panic, sheer panic, to go down to one. Now I’m fine and I’m so excited.”
The Olivier Awards are taking place at the Royal Albert Hall in London.