We should have known that Independent on Sunday readers are a talented bunch. And keen too. Still, we were taken aback when the entries for this year's IoS/Panasonic writing competition started to pour in, by the sackload, taking over the office bit by bit. Three months later, they've been read and re-read, sorted and re-sorted, argued over and re- argued over. Not all of them were good, and very few were outstanding, but the general standard was higher than we could ever have expected. Predictably, there was a huge range of voices, making comparisons almost impossible, and each of the categories was fiercely contested: any of the category winners would have made a worthy overall winner. In the end, however, we opted for Steve Timms' review of Alex Finlayson's play Misfits (at the Royal Exchange, Manchester), printed here in its entirety. People often say that theatre criticism is a dying art, so it was doubly refreshing to find someone showing such a light touch as well as such obvious enthusiasm for the form. He wins a Panasonic CF-62CJC4 multi-media notebook PC, worth pounds 3,199. Each of the four other category winners, details of which appear below, wins a runners'- up prize of a Panasonic KX-F1100E fax machine, worth pounds 500. Congratulations to all the winners; thanks to Panasonic for its generous sponsorship; and - especially - our thanks to everyone who entered

The overall winner of the competition is Steve Timms, 30, an actor, playwright and part-time journalist from Bardsley, Oldham. He was selected from the winners of the five categories - Feature Writer, Book Reviewer, Arts Critic, Columnist and Living Review Writer - and wins a new Panasonic CF-62CJC4 multi-media notebook PC, worth pounds 3,199.

The four runners-up each receive a Panasonic KX-F1100E plain- paper fax machine, with fully digital telephone-answering machine and copier, worth pounds 500. They are: Feature Writer - David Houston of London SW19 for his memoir of life as an unpublished writer; Book Reviewer - Emily Bearn of London SW3 for her review of Susie Boyt's Characters of Love; Columnist - Robert Shore of London N4 for his witty rock'n'roll memories; Living Review Writer - Helena Mary Smith of London SW11 for her account of a weekend trip to Finland.

OKAY, here's the pitch. There's this famous playwright see, married to this beautiful but neurotic actress. Rocky marriage. As a gesture of his slowly dimming love, he writes her this screenplay, The Misfits, gets an ageing matinee idol and a drug- addicted homosexual to co-star, a hard-drinking director to take the helm, and WRAP! "It's the ultimate motion picture!" roars the publicity machine. Only this isn't a movie. This is life.

Recognising that the process of film-making is one of blood, sweat and caffeine, American playwright Alex Finlayson focuses on the behind-the- scenes tussles of John Huston's film, written by Arthur Miller, and starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It makes for a fascinating concoction, and one with far more tension and resonance than the film itself: "The Misfits is a dozen pictures rolled into one," said Time magazine - "Unfortunately, most of them are terrible." Which happens to be both the chief strength and weakness of Finlayson's play: after two years of research and writing, it certainly bears the stamp of authenticity, but it stands or falls on the audience having at least a passing acquaintance with the film itself. Yet how many people have sat through The Misfits and simultaneously managed to stay awake? ("A dramatic failure of considerable proportions," added the New York Times.)

The crux of Misfits is the deterioration of Miller and Monroe's marriage: he's burning the candle middle- and end-ways, knocking out the next day's shooting script; she's falling apart in the next-door room - sometimes in the company of beautiful loser Monty Clift (such a potential liability that the studio appointed him a personal minder). Finlayson cuts quickly from one scene to the next, generating a real feeling of cinematic momentum. The use of a 14-strong cast, many doubling as film-lot technicians, adds a further element of realism, as does the presence of a hapless go-between executive, reporting on the state of the production to the studio chiefs ("facelessly" represented by voices off).

The performances are mostly excellent. Lisa Eichhorn, so moving in Ivan Passer's film Cutter's Way, brings similar gravitas to her role as Monroe - a real flesh-and-blood interpretation, not the cartoon blonde we're so used to seeing. Her breakdown scene, thrashing naked in bed while a nurse attempts to sedate her, is deeply upsetting to watch (not that this is something we don't expect from a play about Marilyn - the freshness of Eichborn's take just makes us view her from a different perspective).

Christian Burgess faithfully reproduces the character of the plodding, humour-impaired Miller with nice detail, right down to the pipe he holds like a mascot during his many marital spats. Stephen Yardley, well known from ohmygod Howards' Way, is rather good as Huston, though Ray Lonnen seems mis-cast as Gable, looking nothing more than a man pointing moustache and stetson at the camera, the same persona on and off. James Clyde, however, almost steals the show from everyone, being both pathetic and charming in equal measure; his Monty Clift is every mother's son gone wrong, lost in the darkness but still loved and missed from the family table. His scene with Eichhorn, two lonely voices drinking and crying into the night, sends shivers down the vertebrae.

"Don't form any opinions about movie-making from this," one crew-member says. "This is not how to make a movie." The very last scene is a bleak confrontation between Monroe and Miller; "I'll see you around," she says, probably for the last time. And that's it. It's a cynical, unflinching moment, devoid of the over-ripe sentimentality which marred the end of the screenplay written by Miller - who, for all his pompous blathering about the "truth of the character", seems to have blanched at the prospect of being too truthful. Finlayson has no such reservations, and succeeds in turning a cinematic sow's ear into a theatrical silk purse.

This is a great play.

This was the first time we have run a Young Cartoonist competition (for people aged 30 or under), and we really had no idea what to expect. So we were pleased to find such a rich variety of entries - from the surreal to the ridiculous. Most of the entries were from cartoonists in their late teens or twenties, though some were much younger. Entrants were invited to submit three unpublished cartoons for one of two categories: spot cartoons and cartoon strips. As in the writing competition, the general standard was high, without there being many entries you could genuinely call outstanding. But in the end, the judges were unanimous in voting an overall winner: John Rowley of London E11 - the only dispute being over which of his three strips was the funniest of the bunch. He wins the first prize of pounds 500 worth of artist's materials from Daler-Rowney and a Panasonic KX-F1100E plain-paper fax, with fully digital telephone-answering machine and copier, worth pounds 500.

n The runner-up, and the winner of the spot-cartoon category, is Michael Forbes, a 29- year-old self-confessed surrealist from Conon Bridge, near Inverness, for "Who Ordered the Fish?". He wins pounds 200 worth of artist's materials from Daler-Rowney. Again, our thanks to Daler-Rowney, Panasonic - and to everyone who entered the competition.