BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR : Edgar's singular European currency

The most popular film-maker in history got into history, and stayed popular. Glyndebourne rose again, handsomely. Pop ate itself, but survived. Steve Coogan was everywhere, and so was Hugh Grant; only one of them is praised here. The theatre had a thin time, but television drama serials made up for it. People defined themselves on Mondays at 9pm: were you for `Cracker' or `Chuzzlewit'? And again on Saturdays at 8pm: did you really believe that a 14m-1 shot would win?(Or did you do it for love of the arts?) It wasn't the best of years, but it had its moments. And here they are, in the fourth annual `IoS' Awards

IN ANOTHER thin year there were three ground-breaking works that would have looked good in any company. Of these my unhesitating first choice is David Edgar's Pentecost, the sole example of a beautifully crafted piece on a big public theme. Back in 1989 the English stage was quick to deliver a flood of premature plays on post-Communist Europe to which Edgar himself contributed. Five years later, he has digested the experience and delivered a piece that really sees round the subject.

Like all Edgar's work, Pentecost is the well-informed product of a European intelligence. Unlike some of his earlier plays, it is also equipped with a mainspring idea strong enough to assimilate a mass of material - nationalism, terrorism, stateless exile, the relationship between art and politics - into a single driving narrative. We were getting reconciled to the choice between well-written plays on puny subjects, and defective plays on important themes. In this piece, Edgar closes the gap, and coversmore ground than anyone else in sight.

Kevin Elyot closes another gap in My Night with Reg. Second only to Irish authors, homosexuals have been the mainstay of English comedy; but this happy state of affairs came to an end when homosexuality became politicised and the word went out that beinggay was no laughing matter. The material of Elyot's piece is as bleak as any activist could wish: Aids, betrayal, loneliness, multiple deaths. But, rediscovering comedy's origins in suffering, Elyot transforms this harrowing story into the funniest thing to hit the West End since Joe Orton. His technical secret is a mastery of stage time; but the effect is not manipulative. Reg is funny because it is true.

Terry Johnson likewise sticks his neck out in Dead Funny by looking at the comic side of male impotence. There is as much suffering in this piece about a neglected wife as there is in Elyot's play. And, like Elyot, Johnson finds his comic key in a technical device. The men, incessantly cracking old jokes, are totally without humour; whereas the wife, a miserable wallflower in this giggling party, is the real and devastating clown. It is a comedy inside a comedy.

The message I take from these three plays is that form is crucial.

Previous winners: 1991 `The Blue Angel' (Pam Gems, Royal Shakespeare Company); 1992 `Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' (Frank McGuinness, Hampstead Theatre); 1993 `Arcadia' (Tom Stoppard, National Theatre).

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