A SMALL scale, home-grown British musical surprisingly beat the two blockbusters of the year, Disney's The Lion King and the Abba musical Mamma Mia, to scoop a top award yesterday.
Spend Spend Spend - a recently opened version of the life of Viv Nicholson, the pools winner who won and lost a fortune in the Sixties - was named Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
Joining cast members at the ceremony at the Savoy Hotel in central London, the real life Viv Nicholson indulged in a moment's theatre herself when, for no apparent reason, she decided to show her knickers to the audience.
Whether or not that was a comment on the state of West End theatre, the judges certainly had their worries about standards, refusing to make an award for best play.
Max Hastings, the editor of the Evening Standard and chairman of the judges, said that it "has not been a vintage year". He added: "We thought it would diminish the award that it did not live up to the achievements of the past and, we believe, the future."
The Lion King did win a special award, being named Theatrical Event of the Year. The show's director, Julie Taymor, flew in from Los Angeles to pick up the title from Joan Collins.
Guests at yesterday's ceremony included Vanessa Redgrave, Julia McKenzie, and Trainspotting star Jonny Lee Miller, who all presented awards.
Trevor Nunn, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, was named Best Director for his work on The Merchant Of Venice and Summerfolk.
Actor Simon Callow, whose screen credits include Four Weddings And A Funeral and Room With A View, was one of the winners of the two-part Patricia Rothermere Award for his services to theatre.
The other half of the title, a drama school scholarship for a student who would otherwise have no funding, went to 19-year-old Martin Rea from Belfast.
Collecting his title, Callow spoke of his gratitude for being allowed to take part in the selection procedure for the second part of the award. "It's still true that far, far too many people can't afford to go to drama school, which is what makes this award so remarkable. I'm thrilled I've been part of this," he said.
Stephen Dillane, whose film roles include the lead in Welcome To Sarajevo, was named Best Actor for his performance as a middle-aged playwright in The Real Thing at the Donmar Warehouse, while Janie Dee took the Best Actress award for Comic Potential at the Lyric Theatre.
The new award of Outstanding Newcomer was given to Eve Best for her performance in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the Young Vic.
Actor John Hurt, who was at the awards to present the Best Actress prize, used the occasion to pay tribute to Quentin Crisp, the writer and raconteur, who died yesterday aged 90. He said he would never be forgiven if he did not make reference to Crisp's death.
"This is a man to whom in many ways I owe my career and this is a man that benefited tremendously from the performance of the Naked Civil Servant in his own right.
"I would hate to have him looking down from wherever he is saying, 'Well only an Englishman would let his friends die and not even mention it'.
"Bless you, Quentin. You were one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived."
Taymor, picking up the Theatrical Event title said: "This award is about making theatre alive, making theatre a sacred space. It's quite an irony that this production comes from a movie and it was our mission to make it as theatrical as possible."
She said the team behind The Lion King had tried to "create poetry on stage".
Review, page 3
YEAR'S TOP PERFORMANCES
r Best Actor - Stephen Dillane for The Real Thing.
r Best Actress - Janie Dee for Comic Potential.
r Evening Standard/Carlton Television Award for Best Musical - Spend, Spend, Spend.
r Sydney Edwards Award for Best Director - Trevor Nunn for The Merchant of Venice and Summerfolk.
r Most Promising Playwright - Rebecca Gilman for The Glory of Living.
r Patricia Rothermere Award - Simon Callow and Martin Rea.
r Best Stage Designer - Tim Hatley for Suddenly Last Summer, Sleep with Me and The Darker Face of the Earth.
r Outstanding Newcomer - Eve Best for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.
r Theatrical Event Of The Year - The Lion King.
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