It is a success story rich with showbusiness ironies: a 51-year-old entertainer with a keen aversion to Shakespeare wins a "newcomer" award after 32 years in the business, for his first serious acting role in a Shakespearean tragedy.
But that was the happy predicament the comedian Lenny Henry found himself in yesterday after winning an Evening Standard theatre award for his lead role in Othello, which transferred from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to the West End after an acclaimed sell-out tour. The play's run at the Trafalgar Studios in London comes to an end on 12 December. Henry, who was inspired to audition for the part after completing an Open University degree in English literature, said his only previous experience of acting on stage was as "the black kid" in a nativity play as a child. He added: "I must be the oldest newcomer there has ever been – which means there is hope for Bruce Forsyth's King Lear."
Other winners of the awards, which celebrate the best of London theatre, included Rachel Weisz, below, who was named best actress. The award was renamed this year to honour Natasha Richardson, who died in March.
Weisz, a British actress who has conquered Hollywood, won the accolade for her role as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. The award was introduced by Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who said she was proud the award carried her daughter's name, adding: "It is a wonderful thing to do." Speaking on location in Romania, Weisz said: "It is even more of an honour because this is the first year that the award has been named after the great and much, much-loved Natasha Richardson."
There were no prizes handed out to the West End's commercial theatres. The Royal Court dominated the ceremony, taking four awards in total. Its production of Jerusalem, a comic take on modern life in rural England, was named best play, and Mark Rylance received the best actor award for his lead performance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in the same play.
Enron, another Royal Court production, was also recognised, with Rupert Goold named best director for his handling of the "innovative" comic production based on the financial scandal. The award for most promising playwright was given to Alia Bano for Shades, also staged at the Royal Court, which was described by awards organisers as "an engagingly irreverent depiction of life in Britain for a young, secular Muslim woman".
Sir Ian McKellen, whose career has spanned almost 50 years, received an award for his outstanding contribution to British theatre, which includes leading roles in Macbeth and Hamlet, as well as in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Rachel Weisz, A Streetcar Named Desire
Rupert Goold, Enron
Mamoru Iriguchi, Mincemeat
*Most promising playwright
Alia Bano, Shades
Lenny Henry, Othello
*Special award Sir Ian McKellen, for his contribution to theatre