The Critics' Awards 1998: Stage actor - Go West End, young woman!

I sat on the panel for the Evening Standard Drama Awards, and each of the judge's choice for Best Actor was the same. The choices for Best Actress differed widely. No one's first choice (or second, or third, as far as I recall) was Nicole Kidman. She received a special award of her own for making theatre a hot topic of conversation.

It has been a year of hype. This year's invasion of film stars has shown up the chasm between stage and screen acting. In Naked at the Almeida Juliette Binoche had an emotional rawness that justified the play's title. But up against some fruity British voices, she lacked the vocal strength to compete. The National's glamorously cast production of Antony and Cleopatra - with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren - was sold out before it opened. But the verse-speaking was a disaster.

In David Hare's The Judas Kiss, Liam Neeson lumbered around in a heavy overcoat, never convincing us that he had the intellect to write The Importance of Being Earnest. The great wit turned out to be a bore. Kidman was skilled and engaging, playing a variety of roles in The Blue Room. The venue was tiny, so she never had to project her performance while retaining the illusion of naturalness. Nor was she as good as she is in films.

Ewan McGregor was energetic and entertaining in Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs. But only one film star gave a stage performance that equalled his screen work. As the judges all agreed at the Standard lunch, Kevin Spacey's spellbinding Hickey, the reformed drinker in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, was the performance of the year. Spacey had tremendous speed, wit and charm. He also had physical grace. He bounced off the rest of the cast, constantly deepening his relationship with each of the other characters, and (along the way) raising everyone's game. A great leading actor in an ensemble piece.

Elsewhere, Peter Bowles was the picture of silvery suaveness as the arms manufacturer Undershaft in Bernard Shaw's ever- topical Major Barbara. Stephen Dillane was a memorably youthful Vanya in Katie Mitchell's Uncle Vanya at the Young Vic, containing a desperate lassitude behind a haze of smoke. Alan Dobie brought an irritable, self-absorbed spryness to Estragon in Peter Hall's very funny Waiting For Godot. In Karel Weisz's production of Pinter's A Kind of Alaska, Bill Nighy had a marvellous stillness as the doctor, and Penelope Wilton a transparent freshness as Deborah waking from 20 years of sleeping sickness. At the Almeida, Frances de la Tour brought a mischievous insouciance to The Play about the Baby.

Among young actors, I was struck by Laurence Mitchell as the lover in Cause Celebre, and one of the sons in Filumena. And as the wife from the country in London Cuckolds at the National, newcomer Kelly Reilly proved that you could put her in any chorus line, and the audience would notice her first.

t Stage actor of 1998: Kevin Spacey

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