Evgeny Lebedev

A night out with two of the theatre’s great dames

The Evening Standard Friday 22 November 2013

The Evening Standard Theatre Awards were a reminder of what an important part the stage plays in making London the city it is

Modesty — false or otherwise — is a persistent feature of the awards ceremony acceptance speech, so it was in a sense fitting that when David Walliams took to the stage to accept his prize at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards on Sunday, he graciously attributed his success merely to “sleeping with Evgeny Lebedev”.

Dame Helen Mirren leaned over to quietly assure me that “it’s just a British way of showing respect”, but I think David does himself a disservice. Anyone who was fortunate enough to see his magnificent Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year will know there could be no more worthy winner of an award for comedy performance.

It’s been my privilege to host the awards for several years now and, as I said on stage at the Savoy, for me the theatre is the single biggest thing that makes London the greatest place in the world to live.

There was no shortage of surreal and uniquely London moments, too. Making conversation with two men dressed as women is probably a weekly occurrence in the life of an Englishman, but I imagine it’s quite rare that one should be Grayson Perry, the other Dame Edna Everage, and then the three of you should be joined by the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Standard has a long association with the London stage — the awards are in their 59th year — a period in which the role of newspapers has fundamentally changed. The newspaper as a vehicle for delivering news is diminishing but that just confers further importance on the other things they do. Hugh Grant and Barbara Windsor are just two of the actors who came on Sunday who have helped the Evening Standard raise more than £1 million to improve literacy standards in disadvantaged schools and spread the joy of reading to London’s kids.

As you will hopefully have noticed in the Standard and other newspapers in previous weeks, our next target is the pervasive and growing problem of London’s gangs. Through our Frontline London campaign we are already showing young gang members how they can have a better life — before it’s too late.

In a glittering firmament of stars on Sunday night, no one shone more brightly than 25-year-old Feras al-Bakri. Eight years ago a drug dealer pointed a gun at Feras and pulled the trigger. He was lucky. The bullet only hit his calf and ended up lodged in his ankle. It’s still there.

It’s both shocking and depressing that there are so many stories like Feras’s unfolding every day in a city like London.

Feras’s mother died in childbirth, and his father beat him before abandoning him entirely. He ended up dealing drugs and charging around London with guns. Within a few years he was in prison.

But there he found his alternative, his way out — the theatre. Now Feras runs his own theatre company, the FAB Arts Company, which goes from school to school telling kids about his experiences and how they can choose a better path. I am proud that Feras’s company is one of many initiatives the Evening Standard is supporting. It’s not just through the bright lights of the West End that theatre is making London a better place to live.

Independent Day

On the subject of the changing face of newspapers, there’s one you may have noticed is suddenly looking more beautiful than ever these days. The newly redesigned Independent, with its vertical masthead (the name’s up the side, for those not fully down with newspaper vernacular) has been on the shelves for two weeks now. All right, so we knew it was beautiful, but we’ve still been rather bowled over by the response, from readers, from the design community, and from Fleet Street’s oldest hands.

Of course, it does little to change the fundamental challenges facing the industry, which is being stretched unimaginably hard from every direction. So if you can stretch to it, and if you’ve got some time to spare before your free Evening Standard arrives, do try it, you might just like it.

Me, my selfie and I

“Selfie” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Quite why the self-taken photograph should have become such a cultural phenomenon is rather mystifying, but space-walking astronauts and the Pope, no less, are as much to blame as any pop star.

To that end, here’s mine to add to the growing collection. I can only express relief that “twerk” was beaten into second place, or this column might have had to surrender the very last of its dignity.

(Picture: Dave Benett)