At the afterparty for the 2019 Helpmann Awards there was plenty of chat about the fact that the new Australian play Counting and Cracking had taken home seven awards including Best Production of a Play, while Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two – much awarded in London and New York – had won just one award for lighting.

Helpmann AwardsVaishnavi Suryaprakash and Sukania Venugopal in Counting and Cracking. Photograph © Brett Boardman

I heard someone, who fervently believed that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child should have won Best Play, argue that there is far more public interest in the production than in any other play on stage in Australia right now, which may well be true but has little bearing; the Helpmann Awards are not popularity prizes. Others complained that it was a case of parochialism, a claim since echoed on social media, and not always by people who had actually seen Counting and Cracking. One media report claimed that the Helpmanns had “snubbed” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

In the past, Australia has been accused of cultural cringe, and there have certainly been cringe-making moments at the Helpmanns with nominations for choreography, for example, that was created overseas decades ago. Now the Helpmanns are accused of parochialism. In fact, I believe that the voters were recognising a groundbreaking moment in Australian theatre.

Don’t get me wrong. I adored Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two. It’s exceptional theatre on every level, and I gave it five stars when I reviewed the production in Melbourne. But when S. Shikthadharan – or Shakthi as he is generally known – who wrote and co-directed Counting and Cracking – took to the stage (looking resplendent in a Sri Lankan outfit) to collect the seventh Helpmann Award for his ambitious new drama, it was not only a triumphant moment for him and Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack who worked for six years to get the play to the stage, it was an exciting sign that things are changing in Australian theatre.

Produced by Belvoir and Co-Curious with the support of the Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, Counting and Cracking tells the story of a Sri Lankan-Australian family across four decades. The production featured a cast of 17 performers speaking in six different languages. There have been calls for more diversity on our stages and screens for a long time; here was a stunning example. Reflecting a section of Australian society not often portrayed on stage, the epic play sold out when it premiered at the 2019 Sydney Festival on a specially built stage in Sydney Town Hall, before moving to the Adelaide Festival. What’s more, it was a provocative, thrilling, illuminating piece of theatre.

Counting and Cracking was not the only new Australian work to take home a major Bobby at the 19th Helpmann Awards. Barbara and the Camp Dogs, by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, won four awards including Best Musical over Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: West Side Story, In the Heights, and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though you could argue that Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a play with songs rather than a fully-fledged musical, it is a fabulous, fierce show about two Indigenous sisters, which pulses with anger and frustration yet also has a huge, tender heart. Premiered by Belvoir, in association with Vicki Gordon Music Productions Pty Ltd, in 2017, it has since toured and been widely acclaimed. How great to see such an uplifting, timely piece about Australian society honoured in this way.

Best Ballet went to Aurum, created for The Australian Ballet by Alice Topp, a promising young Australian choreographer who is a dancer with TAB: another new Australian piece nominated against international companies or choreographers.

For the first time since the Helpmann Awards began in 2001, founded by Live Performance Australia, the ceremony was held in Melbourne over two nights. The second evening, Act II, was hosted by comedian, actor and writer Susie Youssef and actor/director Mitchell Butel, the new Artistic Director of State Theatre Company South Australia, who made a fabulous double act, keeping things ticking along in genial fashion, with plenty of laughs. As usual there were performances by companies including Victorian Opera, The Australian Ballet, Bangarra and the company of the musical of School of Rock, among others, as well as an exclusive on-screen montage of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from the Princess Theatre.

The one disappointment was the enforced 30-second rule for acceptance speeches, particularly when the shtick by some presenters went on for far longer than that. I understand the need to keep things tight. Perhaps the presenters should have 30 seconds as well. But when it comes to the big awards it would be great for the winners to have the chance to say just a bit more. Instead many of them, including Shakthi who had some profound things to say about finally feeling he didn’t need to limit himself on stage, were played off by the orchestra so the really powerful, moving speeches that sometimes happen at ceremonies like this were nipped in the bud.