Historic night for Alan Bennett as his new play dominates the Olivier awards

His wry northern wit combined with his sharp observations of the absurdities of modern life have earned him a place among Britain's most respected playwrights. But despite his success, Alan Bennett has remained among the more down-to-earth stars of the British literary scene.

His wry northern wit combined with his sharp observations of the absurdities of modern life have earned him a place among Britain's most respected playwrights. But despite his success, Alan Bennett has remained among the more down-to-earth stars of the British literary scene.

Yesterday, Bennett, 70, had reason to celebrate as he swept the board at the Laurence Olivier Awards, in London. The writer's status as a national treasure was confirmed when he was honoured for his outstanding contribution to British theatre, while his latest play The History Boys won a further three prizes.

Bennett was presented the award in a ceremony in London hosted by Richard Wilson, and attended by stars including Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Jill Halfpenny, Sheila Hancock, Celia Imrie, Elaine Paige and Kevin Spacey.

Bennett, who received a standing ovation as he collected his prize, said: "Theatre is really doing, not what you've done, and the thing we're doing, The History Boys, has given me more pleasure than anything I can remember."

Victoria Wood, who presented the award, said she was such a fan. "I really think he's been underestimated over the years because he's accessible and that somehow is considered less worthy than being obscure." She said it was always commented on that his work was "beautifully observed", but she said it was his attitude, empathy and hard work that made such a difference.

Richard Griffiths beat a strong shortlist, including Michael Gambon and Jonathan Pryce, to win best actor for his role in The History Boys, which was a sell-out success at the National's Lyttelton theatre.

Nicholas Hytner, who runs the National, won best director for the play, beating his predecessor, Richard Eyre, who was in the running for Mary Poppins. The History Boys was named best new play against competition from productions by the Almeida Theatre, Festen and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Best actress went to Clare Higgins for her performance in Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse. Its artistic director, Michael Grandage, collected an award for Grand Hotel, which won outstanding musical production.

For musicals, it was the night of The Producers, the Mel Brooks stage version of his 1968 film. It won three out of the eight categories for which it was nominated, topped by the best new musical award against Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White.

Nathan Lane, the American who starred in The Producers on Broadway, and stepped in at the last minute in London to replace Richard Dreyfuss, won best actor in a musical for his performance, beating his co-star Lee Evans. He dedicated half his award to Evans.

"Thank you, you crazy British people," he said. "God bless you. For an old Anglophile like myself, this means a great deal. I'd like to thank Richard Dreyfuss, without whom none of this would have been possible."

Mary Poppins was nominated in nine categories but succeeded in two, with Laura Michelle Kelly winningbest actress in a musical for playing the eponymous nanny, and Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear taking the best theatre choreographer award.

THE WINNERS

SPECIAL AWARD Alan Bennett for his outstanding contribution to British theatre

BEST ACTOR Richard Griffiths for The History Boys at the Lyttelton

BEST ACTRESS Clare Higgins for Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse

BEST DIRECTOR Nicholas Hytner for The History Boys at the Lyttelton

BEST PERFORMANCE IN A SUPPORTING ROLE Amanda Harris for Othello at Trafalgar Studios

BEST NEW PLAY The History Boys by Alan Bennett at the Lyttelton

BEST REVIVAL Hamlet at the Old Vic

BEST NEW MUSICAL The Producers by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan at Theatre Royal

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL Nathan Lane for The Producers at Theatre Royal

BEST ACTRESS IN< A MUSICAL Laura Michelle Kelly for Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward

BEST PERFORMANCE IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL Conleth Hill for The Producers at Theatre Royal

OUTSTANDING MUSICAL PRODUCTION Grand Hotel by Luther Davis at the Donmar Warehouse

BEST NEW OPERA PRODUCTION The Royal Opera's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera House

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN OPERA Thomas Adès and Royal Opera House for The Tempest

BEST NEW DANCE PRODUCTION Rambert Dance Company's Swamp at Sadler's Wells

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN DANCE San Francisco Ballet for their season at Sadler's Wells

BEST THEATRE CHOREOGRAPHER Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear for Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT OR PERFORMANCE IN AN AFFILIATE THEATRE Andrew Scott for A Girl In A Car With A Man at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN Paule Constable for His Dark Materials at the Olivier

BEST SOUND DESIGN Mick Potter for The Woman in White at the Palace

BEST COSTUME DESIGN Deirdre Clancy for All's Well That Ends Well at the Gielgud

BEST SET DESIGN Giles Cadle for His Dark Materials at the Olivier

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