Is the West End of London becoming as celebrity-obsessed as Hollywood? It's tempting to think so after seeing the nominations for this year's Olivier Awards, which will be held on Sunday at the swanky Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair. The Atonement stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are up for a prize apiece, Knightley for best supporting actress in the Comedy Theatre's The Misanthrope, and McAvoy for best actor in Three Days of Rain at the Apollo. He'll be facing stiff competition from Jude Law and James Earl Jones, among others.
Meanwhile, in the best actress category, Rachel Weisz will go head-to-head with Gillian Anderson and Juliet Stevenson. Other big names up for trophies include Rowan Atkinson, The Office's Mackenzie Crook and - unexpectedly, for many - the former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm for her role in the popular musical Blood Brothers at the Phoenix. While many of the film and TV actors nominated - Imelda Staunton and Maureen Lipman are two others - got their start on the London stage and have been critically acclaimed for their recent performances, others seem to have been listed in order to bring a little extra stardust to the proceedings. The best actor category has been bumped up from five slots to six this year, and with such a glam line-up (the West End veterans Samuel West, Ken Stott and Mark Rylance are on the list alongside McAvoy, Earl Jones and Law) it's tempting to think that it was expanded so more celebrities could be crammed in. Knightley's category was also expanded from five to six this year.
Award ceremonies are pricey and rely on sponsors; sponsors need publicity, so the more media-friendly faces there, the better. And of course, one way of getting A-listers to turn up is to dangle the possibility of a prize in front of them. Eyebrows were raised at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards last November when Lenny Henry won Best Newcomer for his performance as Othello, triumphing over much younger (and more theatrically trained) actors who, it has been argued, are more in need of the limelight. It seems unlikely that Knightley, who received mixed reviews for her portrayal of a spoilt American film star, will come away with an award: while The Guardian called her performance an intelligent one, The Daily Mail cruelly insisted she had "all the charisma of a serviceable goldfish".
Drumming up business for the theatre industry is a big part of the reason behind awards ceremonies like the Oliviers, but they're also about shining a spotlight on lesser-known talent. And it's even more important that they fulfil that second role when casting directors often rely on big names to sell tickets rather than taking a chance on up-and-coming actors. Big West End musicals are often among the most risk-averse: non-actors such as the TV presenter Jerry Springer, the comedian Omid Djalili and the former boy-band member Duncan James have all been cast in big productions in the past year (Chicago, Oliver! and Legally Blonde: The Musical, respectively), and it's tempting to believe they weren't chosen for their acting chops. Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke recently turned up in Sam Mendes's productions of The Cherry Orchard and A Winter's Tale, produced by the Old Vic Theatre, where the artistic director Kevin Spacey has persuaded Hollywood chums such as Jeff Goldblum (in Speed-the-Plow) to take to the stage in recent years.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with casting famous people in plays, so long as they're the best actors for the job, and that's something that the people at the Donmar Warehouse know a thing or two about. A small theatre with an impeccable reputation, the Donmar is up for an impressive 10 Olivier Awards across five productions this year. Law, who is nominated for his Donmar West End performance of Hamlet, has said that he is "absolutely thrilled". Recent Donmar productions have starred Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh - household names who definitely have the skills to back up their popularity. And the crowd-pleasing casting has worked: according to the Donmar's artistic director, Michael Grandage: "2009 was one of the most significant years in the Donmar's history, as we played to our widest audience base since the organisation was formed." In the middle of a recession, that's no mean feat.
There's another nod to populism at this year's Oliviers: the audience award is back on the roster after an eight-year hiatus. Five long-running productions - Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, We Will Rock You, War Horse and Billy Elliot - have been shortlisted, and anyone can vote via the website of the organising body, Official London Theatre. All are musicals except War Horse, the play that uses life-size, horse-shaped puppets,which premiered at the National Theatre and became the most successful production in the National's history, later transferring to Broadway and the West End. It is still running at the New London Theatre.
It looks like the West End is still thriving, and according to reports, it's more popular than ever. Last year was a record one for London theatre, both in terms of box office takings and audience numbers. It was also the year that the straight play - as opposed to the musical - made a comeback: audiences at London plays went up 26 per cent compared to 2008. And, while theatre may be poaching some stars from Hollywood, the film industry is borrowing from the theatre world too: there are plans to turn both Spring Awakening and War Horse into big-budget films, with the Charlie's Angels director McG attached to the rock 'n' roll musical and Steven Spielberg slated to direct the First World War boy-and-horse story. It's been, as Society of London Theatre's Nica Burns said, a "memorable year" for theatre in the British capital.