Playwright Joe Penhall and director Michael Grandage probably left today's lunchtime Critics Circle awards ceremony at the Old Vic happiest. In the annual awards, Penhall's Blue Orange won Best New Play and also earned its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Most Promising Newcomer distinction, while Grandage scooped the award for Best Director for his trio of productions this past year (As You Like It at the Lyric Hammersmith and Passion Play and Merrily We Roll Along for the Donmar Warehouse).

All three wins replicate those chosen by the judges in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards back in November. However, beyond that, the Critics' Circle choices differ greatly, throwing wide open speculation as to how the 2001 Laurence Olivier Awards, announced next week, are likely to pan out.

The critics chose Michael Gambon as this year's Best Actor for his roles in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker and Nicholas Wright's Cressida (as opposed to the Standard's selection of Simon Russell Beale for the National's Hamlet). That said, Beale's Hamlet wasn't overlooked by the critics who this year introduced a new category, Best Shakespearean Award, which went to him.

Victoria Hamilton was awarded the Critics' Circle Best Actress honours for As You Like It at the Sheffield Crucible and Lyric Hammersmith theatres (the Standard winner was Paola Dionisotti for Zinnie Harris's Further than the Furthest Thing at the NT Cottesloe).

Best Musical, meanwhile, went to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton's Northern Ireland football-inspired musical, The Beautiful Game at the Cambridge Theatre (versus the Standard's selection of Adventures in Motion Pictures’ The Car Man).

Other Critics' Circle winners were Paul Brown as Best Designer for the Almeida's Richard II, Coriolanus and The Tempest (the Standard opted for Bunny Christie for Baby Doll), and Joanna Laurens as Most Promising Playwright for The Three Birds at the Gate Theatre (versus the Standard's choice of Garry Mitchell for The Force of Change).

This is the 12th year of the Critics' Circle Drama Section's Theatre Awards. The Circle is a professional organisation established in 1913 for those making a living out of criticism.

Interestingly, across the six major categories, the critics' choices do not correlate with any of those leading in the Whatsonstage.com online poll, which has so far attracted over 6,500 theatre-goers' votes. The poll closes next Friday, 23 February, when the Olivier award winners are announced. Whose decisions will come closest to those of the Olivier judging panel's - comprised of five professional judges and eight members of the public - remains to be seen.

- by Terri Paddock