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Arts: Size isn't everything

Neither the National nor the RSC had a great 1998. In fact, nearly all this year's theatrical highlights came from more unexpected venues. David Benedict pulls out some plums, while Dominic Cavendish clears a path through the fringe
You don't have to be Mystic Meg to predict that Kevin Spacey will bag the Olivier award for his completely magnetic performance as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. Of course, he was on to a winner from the off. Hickey gets the biggest build-up in world drama - for an entire hour the rest of the cast sit around yakking about what a great guy he is and how they can't wait for him to arrive.

But Spacey did far more than cruise in on star status. He rode the wave of anticipation like a champion surfer and for the next three hours, with a host of meticulous performances surrounding him, the audience was glued.

Hayley Carmichael confirmed her promise from successive productions with her Told By An Idiot company giving a shimmering jewel of a performance as the yearning upper-class daughter in Mr Puntila and His Man Matti and almost stealing the show from beneath the noses of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl - aka The Right Size.

Indeed, some of the year's best acting came in overlooked roles. Jessica Turner brought unlooked for depths and delicious comic flair to What You Get and What You Expect at the Lyric Hammersmith: very sharp and very funny.

Quite rightly, everyone applauded the Almeida's bravery in taking Racine into the shark-infested West End, but most people were so busy being awed by Jonathan Kent's beautiful productions and their starry leading players that few recognised the excellence of David Bradley. His riveting performance as Theramene in Phedre was a masterclass in relaxed understatement. He barely raised his voice; he just stood his ground and let the richly wrought images of Ted Hughes's translation spring to terrifying life.

There was acting of similar depth in the play of the year, Never Land at the Royal Court. Phyllis Nagy's devastatingly compassionate portrait of a French family hurtling towards disaster made huge demands of its actors who progressed from farcical high comedy to a heartbreaking conclusion as the family made peace with itself. Michelle Fairley shone with self- possession, Anthony Calf brought rare humilty to his role, and almost a year after seeing it, the tragic grandeur of Sheila Gish still burns bright. Watching her battling between the consoling fictions of self-delusion and a true understanding of love in the passionate final act was simply overwhelming. Steven Pimlott's production - returning next year - was also graced by an extraordinarily effective (and almost completely unnoticed) design by Mark Thompson which echoed the atmospheres and moods of Nagy's text.

There was equally bold writing in the widely misinterpreted The Play About the Baby. More than any other play this year, this suffered from "reviewers' baggage" whereby preconceptions coloured the responses to the piece. Several commentators clearly expected Edward Albee to serve up a play in the same style as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and then reprimanded him for not doing so. Either that, or they criticised the subject matter - the moral responsibilities behind having children - and not the play itself. Pardon me, that's not criticism, it's censorship. Howard Davies's scrupulous production featured beautifully calibrated performances all round with a frankly hilarious Frances de la Tour matching blissful comic timing with truthful resolve to a remarkable degree.

The surprise of the year also came courtesy of the Never Land team, Pimlott and Thompson, who spun straw into gold with Dr Dolittle. With its drab score and bald book, no one would be foolish enough to claim that this was the musical of the year, but even cynics were stunned by its beguiling warmth and larkiness, the direct result of Pimlott and Thompson's invention and execution.

The other outstanding collaboration was between director James Macdonald and designer Jeremy Herbert on Sarah Kane's now notorious Cleansed. Their pristine realisation of Kane's disturbing images was an unequivocal and necessary testament to the power of live theatre. Furthermore, although it proved to be box-office poison, Cleansed was a timely example of a theatre staging the unique vision of its playwrights in the teeth of commercial pressure. Thanks to its unheralded Young People's Theatre, the Court also wound up with the debut of the year in Christopher Shinn's astonishingly tender and eliptical state-of-the-nation play Four. Shinn, 23, isn't merely promising: he's the real thing.

Cheek by Jowl went out on a high with a stunning Much Ado About Nothing, the only time I have ever seen all the play's elements fused into a glorious whole. Along the way, director Declan Donnellan made a star out of Matthew McFadyean whose hilarious and touching Benedick was only matched by his Charles Surface in Donnellan's superb The School for Scandal, the finest RSC show in a frighteningly long time. Then, just as the rest of the Shakespearean year looked like a washout, Michael Grandage directed Twelfth Night at Sheffield Crucible. Brimming with unforced humour, this carefully cast, fleet, fresh and superbly spoken production was done on four weeks rehearsal putting to shame the disaster which was Sean Mathias's Antony and Cleopatra, which had twice Grandage's rehearsal period and budget. The National almost made up for that with Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman's veritable exhumation of Oklahoma! Anthony Ward's eye- widening design played no small part in its success. Yet surprisingly there was competition for the coveted award for Best Covered Wagons on the London Stage from the ludicrously enjoyable Yee-Haw!!, 1998's only "camp, cross-dressing cowboy musical", which had a sell-out run at the Rosemary Branch. "Sing and dance/ For no particular reason", whooped the chorus. Yessiree. They share my Best Musical and Funniest Night of the Year awards with the frankly insane film-noir pastiche The Betrayal of Nora Blake at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. The opening number - courtesy of the movie Laura - was entitled "Amnesia", but, to coin a phrase, I remember it well.

There is, however, a worrying theme to this. Theatre is alive, but rarely in the expected places. Almost none of these highlights happened within the large-scale subsidised companies. Time to take stock.