THEATRE With David Benedict

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Lindsay Duncan in Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes almost made you believe this was first-rate Pinter. It wasn't, but The Homecoming is, and the New Year kicks off with Duncan heading a strong cast in Roger Michell's National Theatre revival from 17 January. Michell also did a marvellous job on Martin Sherman's Some Sunny Day, one of the finest plays of 1996.

Clare McIntyre's The Thickness of Skin was lucid and affecting (with a knockout performance by Amelia Bullmore) and the fresh, fast, funny family drama East is East, the debut by Ayub Khan-Din, reappears shortly at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The winner of play of the year, however, is Marina Carr for her genuinely haunting Portia Coghlan.

Mike Alfreds is director of the year for his triple triumph with Method and Madness including an exultant, erotic Private Lives and Philip Osment's powerful and deeply moving Flesh and Blood. The company returns this month with Ghosts and A Winter's Tale.

Pam Gems's Stanley is the hands-down winner of the Aaron Spelling bad exposition award - pity poor Pip Torrens who had to enter in a smock saying "Morning Mr Spencer. Oh, got that wrong, ain't I? Be Lord Spencer, eh?" Fortunately, Deborah Findlay and Antony Sher disguised the problems. Runner-up is Tolstoy, the nightmare bio-play whose "sexy" gypsy moment made me weep with laughter. Which brings me to comedy of the year. Nothing made me laugh as much as The Fields of Ambrosia ("where everyone knows ya") the irony-free electric chair musical of eye-widening tastelessness. Alas, I was meant to take it seriously.

The Happy Eater hideous night out award, is shared between Night Must Fall, Voyeurz and Scrooge and there's another dead heat for musical of the year, which goes to Gloria's Lady Into Fox and Anthony Clark and Mark Vibrans's The Red Balloon.

Actors? Ken Stott pulled off a triple whammy with Art, The Misanthrope and Richard Eyre's thrilling The Prince's Play. Janet McTeer nabs actress of the year for her electrifying Nora in A Doll's House and Lloyd Owen wins best supporting actor for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

My production of the year was Nottingham Playhouse's Time and the Room. Jeremy Sams's translation was first-rate, Wolfgang Gobbel came up with a design to die for and Martin Duncan's - direction was matchless. He will direct The Servant of Two Masters this Spring. A must. All that and the return of Guys and Dolls.