The Laurence Olivier Awards, or simply the Olivier Awards, are presented annually by the Society of London Theatre to recognise excellence in professional theatre in London. The awards were originally known as the Society of West End Theatre Awards, but they were renamed in honour of the British actor of the same name in 1984.
The awards are given annually to individuals involved in West End productions and other leading non-commercial theatres based in London across a range of categories covering plays, musicals, dance, opera and affiliate theatre. A discretionary non-competitive Special Olivier Award is also given each year. The Olivier Awards are recognised internationally as the highest honour in British theatre, equivalent to the BAFTA Awards for film and television, and the BRIT Awards for music. The Olivier Awards are considered equivalent to Broadway's Tony Awards and France's Molière Award.
Since inception, the awards have been held at various venues and theatres across London, from 2012 to 2016 at the Royal Opera House, before moving to the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. Television coverage is broadcast in prime time on ITV1, who acquired the rights from 2013 onwards, with radio coverage by Magic Radio.
The awards were established in 1976 by the Society of London Theatre as the Society of West End Theatre Awards and were designed by artist Tom Merrifield. The first ceremony was in December 1976 at the Café Royal. In 1984, British actor Laurence Olivier gave his consent for the awards to be renamed in his honour and they became known as the Laurence Olivier Awards.
Every year, judging panels for theatre, opera, dance and affiliate shows are put together by the Society of London Theatre.
For opera, dance and affiliates, each panel is made up of a mix of professional panellists (journalists, casting directors, arts administrators, publishers and other industry professionals chosen for their knowledge in the field) and members of the public who are passionate about London theatre. The panels first select the shows they consider most worthy of an Olivier Award nomination, then vote on a winner at the end of the judging period.
For the theatre awards, a longlist is compiled by a panel made up of members of the public, and submitted to SOLT members to vote on. Members may still vote outside of the list at this stage, except for in the four Supporting Actor/Actress categories (as these each contain thousands of eligible performers). The members’ votes are collated with those of the panellists to create the list of nominees. The nominees list is then voted on by both members and panellists to produce the winners.
The first Laurence Olivier Awards to be broadcast on television was the 1981 ceremony, which was broadcast on BBC1. This continued until 1992, before a switch to BBC2 until 2003. The awards ceremony was then only broadcast on radio until 2011, when the BBC broadcast live interactive red-button coverage of the event, while Paul Gambaccini presented a programme on BBC Radio 2 with live coverage and interviews. The same coverage followed in 2012, before ITV secured the broadcast rights which saw the return of the Olivier Awards to mainstream television in 2013. This has continued in recent years, and the ceremony has also been broadcast on Magic Radio.
Some notable records and facts about the Laurence Olivier Awards include the following:
The most Olivier Awards ever received in the history of the ceremony were given to the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in 2017, when it won nine awards including Best New Play.
The record for the most Olivier Awards ever received by a musical is tied between Matilda, Hamilton and the 2021 production of Cabaret which received seven awards including Best Musical (for Matilda & Hamilton), and Best Musical Revival in the instance of Cabaret, which additionally became the first production in Olivier history to win in all four applicable acting categories.
Shared wins: In 2022, all seven actors sharing the role of the Tiger in Life of Pi received the Olivier for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In 2012, all four actresses sharing the role of Matilda in Matilda the Musical received the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical. In 2006, all three actors sharing the role of Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot the Musical received the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical.
Shared nominations: In 2017, the eight members of the cast (six leads and two understudies) of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour were jointly nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Also in 2017, the six cast members from The Girls were jointly nominated in the Best Actress in a Musical category. In 2019, the six cast members of Six were jointly nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical for their performances as the six wives of Henry VIII.
In 2018, Billie Piper became the first, and so far only, actor to have won all six of the currently available UK Theatre Best Actress awards for a single performance: Evening Standard Theatre Awards, What's On Stage Theatre Awards, Critic's Circle Theatre Awards, Broadway UK Theatre Awards, Glamour Awards and Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards. This accolade was achieved by her performance in Yerma, which was hailed as “the performance of the decade”, “shattering, exhausting, earthquaking” and “unbearably harrowing”.