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Olivier Nominations Show How Far Apart Theatre Audiences and Critics Are

13/03/2014 13:31 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo © National Theatre Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston) Photo by Johan Persson

This week the nominations for the Olivier Awards were announced and as well as the usual controversy over who was (and wasn't) nominated, another interesting observation to be made was the many differences between these nominations, decided by professional panellists, and those of the recent What's On Stage Awards, which are voted for entirely by the public.

The What's On Stage Awards (WOS Awards) saw household names such as David Walliams, Helen Mirren and Daniel Radcliffe take home the main awards, but none of these can be found in the Olivier nominations (Helen Mirren won the Olivier for The Audience last year).

Similarly, the productions that were led by household names such as Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios, and Michael Grandage's A Midsummer Night's Dream had multiple nominations across the categories for the WOS Awards. Not so in the Oliviers which gave more recognition to productions such as Richard Eyre's Ghosts and the National's The Amen Corner.

It's the Best Actor award that really highlights what drives audiences to theatres. Now given that Rory Kinnear (Othello) is the only nominee that appears in both the Olivier and the WOS Awards nominee list, that might seem an odd statement but what's clear from the full list of WOS nominees is that celebrity counts.

Daniel Radcliffe won the WOS Award (with 37% of the vote) beating off James McAvoy who was a runner-up for his performance in Macbeth, as well as Lenny Henry and Ben Whishaw. None of these are nominated for the Olivier. Instead Jude Law is nominated for Henry V and Tom Hiddleston for Coriolanus.

Now this omission may seem bizarre considering how famous and popular Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston are, but this is to do with timing - nominations for the WOS Awards closed at the end of November and both Henry V and Coriolanus opened in December. I have no doubt both would have been nominated for audience-based awards if they had qualified. (Similarly I expect Matt Smith would have been attracted a huge audience vote for his performance in American Psycho, which also opened in December).

As it is, Best Actor is a phenomenally tough category, even more so when you consider there was no room (in either list of nominations) for either Adrian Lester's wonderful performance in Othello or for Chiwetel Ejiofor for his portrayal as the doomed Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo.

But this swell of audience interest in seeing actors they recognise is an important factor in drawing audiences in, especially to plays they might not be interested in otherwise.

But the impact of the casting of more well-known actors really shows up in the musical categories. The Scottsboro Boys was a brilliant and innovative production at the Young Vic, a satirical musical based on the tragic story of racial injustice to nine black men in Scottsboro USA in 1931. A single nomination in the WOS Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (Colman Domingo), it rightly received six nominations at the Oliviers across a raft of categories including choreography, acting and direction.

The Scottsboro Boys had no celebrities in its line-up so it just didn't attract the audience that vote in the WOS Awards. Indeed, Colman Domingo received the lowest number of votes in his category at the WOS Awards, losing to Stephen Ashfield from the incredibly popular The Book of Mormon.

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Photo © Almeida Theatre Ghosts - Lesley Manville by Hugo Glendinning

Plenty of observations have been made on the trends that are reflected in the nominations.

It hasn't been a great year for new plays. Chimerica stands out as a glorious exception but it's been a better year for revivals and Shakespeare. One of the nominees for Best New Play is the Almeida's 1984, surely more of an adaptation? (Though that didn't stop the Oliviers awarding Best New Play to Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time last year rather than the completely original Constellations).

Neither list of nominees is right or wrong - I can point at how the audience-based WOS Awards ensured Anne-Marie Duff received recognition for her fabulous performance in Strange Interlude as much as I can that Lesley Manville (in surely the performance of the year) received her rightful nomination for Ghosts in the Oliviers.

What's interesting to me is how reliant we are on celebrities and household names to draw in new audiences to the theatre - and that's a good thing. Not only does this reward us with superb performances but it hopefully will intrigue these new audiences enough to want to come back to theatre-land for more.

The Olivier Awards will go a long way towards that if it can continue its dedication to putting on a terrific show when the awards are handed out on Sunday April 13, 2014 at the Royal Opera House. Drawing attention to productions such as The Scottsboro Boys and Ghosts, as well as dedicated awards to opera and dance, can only be great publicity for the diversity of London's stage productions.

And don't leave it to the critics either!

The Society of London Theatre (who oversee the Oliviers) invites members of the public to be Olivier Awards panellists. Prospective panellists are asked to submit a show review and then undergo interviews with the Chief Executive of SOLT and the awards office. So, you fancy being a panellist next year? Then apply via the Olivier Awards website. And good luck!

Full list of the winners of the What's On Stage Awards can be found here.

The full list of nominations for the Oliviers can be found here.