The biggest shock came early in today's ceremony for the 26th annual Laurence Olivier Awards, held this afternoon at the West End's Victoria Palace Theatre. In the first category announced, Michael Ball presented the Best Actress in a Musical Award to Martine McCutcheon (pictured) for her role in the National Theatre revival of My Fair Lady.

Audience Shares McCutcheon's Shock

The announcement was greeted with some applause mixed with audible gasps and cries of "it's an outrage" from the audience, presumably by those who thought the actress' eligibility was questionable given her few number of appearances in the role of Eliza Doolittle. When McCutcheon took to the stage, her first words were "I am so shocked" to which a few audience members muttered that she wasn't the only one. McCutcheon claimed that she hadn't prepared an acceptance speech only "to prove to myself that I didn't have a hope in hell of winning". She acknowledged that she hadn't performed as often as she or anyone else would have liked but said, "when I did play the part, it meant the world to me and it changed my life. The opening was the happiest night of my life. It beats relationships, love and romance and anything". The award, she concluded, "made all the struggle - that nobody knows about but me - worthwhile".

Notably, when director Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh, who produces the musical now at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, accepted the award of Outstanding Musical Production for My Fair Lady, neither named McCutcheon in their litany of thank-yous. Both, however, praised Jonathan Pryce, with Nunn emphasising that My Fair Lady's current Henry Higgins - who lost out in the Best Actor in a Musical category to Philip Quast (winning his third Olivier) in the current NT musical, South Pacific - was "the leader of this whole project...I can't pay high enough tribute to his skills, patience, determination and his genius in that part".

Nunn's Outstanding Achievement

Nunn also used Outstanding Musical Production award as an opportunity to defend the National Theatre's right to stage big-budget musicals, arguing that "musical theatre is as much a part of legitimate theatrical expression as any other form". Nunn was called up for another award unexpectedly - the special category of overall Outstanding Achievement, which was presented by playwright Tom Stoppard who heralded Nunn as a "genius director". The award recognised Nunn's 35-year career which has embraced the Royal Shakespeare Company, numerous big-budget musicals including Cats and now his tenure at the National Theatre, which ends next year.

In his acceptance of the Achievement award, Nunn suggested that his career had been ruled by luck more than anything, and thanked many individuals for their support along the way, including director Peter Hall (whose working relationship with Nunn at the RSC the award winner described as "life-changing and certainly life-defining"), John Barton ("who taught me everything I'll ever know about Shakespeare's verse"), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh ("for introducing me to a completely different world of theatre"), designer John Napier and director John Caird ("the two greatest creative relationships of my life"), and his actress wife Imogen Stubbs (the object of Nunn's "Niagara of thanks"). In one instance, the director also referred to his career as not much more than a "hill of beans" to which Olivier host Clive Anderson later commented "some beans".

Kiss Me, Kate Loses Out All Around

Nunn’s production of My Fair Lady also won the Best Theatre Choreographer award for Matthew Bourne, who was not present to collect, but who emailed in his thanks to the "unsung heroes" of musical productions, the dance assistants.

With those main musical awards going to the two NT offerings, Michael Blakemore's Broadway transfer of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, which led last month's nominations with nine awards contentions across the Olivier categories and whose stage hosted today's event, went home with no awards at all.

To the audience's surprise and apparent delight, the remaining musical award - for Best Supporting Performance in Musical or Entertainment - went to Martyn Jacques for Shockheaded Peter. The comically black production of gothic children's tales, which has developed a cult following and returns in April for its second West End season, also won the Olivier for Best Entertainment.

The usual category of Best New Musical was omitted from this year's Olivier Awards, despite a film montage of 2001's musical theatre highlights which opened by saying the year "began in style" with the RSC's UK premiere of The Secret Garden and went on to take in the premieres of Closer to Heaven and Peggy Sue Got Married. The first received no Oliviers nominations while the second and third were represented by only one, unfulfilled, nomination a piece (for performances by Paul Keating and Ruthie Henshall, respectively).

Play What I Wrote Scores Double Whammy

The Morecambe and Wise-inspired spoof, The Play What I Wrote won two awards - one for Best New Comedy and the other for Toby Jones as Best Supporting Actor. The former was presented by Sir Ian McKellen at last night's performance of the play at Wyndham's Theatre. In the introduction to the award presentation, which was filmed ahead of today's ceremony, McKellen jibed about "two jokers getting laughs at my expense eight times a week - shouldn't I be getting some kind of royalty...It's all frightfully unprofessional." One of the running gags in the comedy is that McKellen is unable to appear because he's drunk in the pub.

When accepting the Best New Comedy award, Hamish McColl, of the Right Size, who created the piece with former Morecambe and Wise collaborator Eddie Braben, dedicated it, saying "Eric and Ernie, I would like to offer this to you". During his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Toby Jones' voice trembled with emotion but he said that The Play What I Wrote was an "incredibly happy show to be in".

Lindsay Duncan Beats Herself

Other productions that fared well included Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy and Howard Davies' revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives. The former netted the Best Supporting Actress award for the popular choice of Marcia Warren and shared with Private Lives the award for Best Set Designer for Tim Hatley. Private Lives also scooped Best Costume Designer for Jenny Beavan and Best Actress for Lindsay Duncan.

Controversially, Duncan was up against herself in the actress category out of a field of just four. When accepting for Private Lives, she said, "On behalf of my other self, I'd like to say how proud I was to be nominated for Mouth to Mouth", and added that she shared the credit for the Private Lives-designated Best Actress award with her co-star Alan Rickman. "This Amanda just wouldn't exist without that Elyot," she professed.

Newcomers, Old Hands & Shakespeare

Elsewhere, Best Actor went to Roger Allam for Privates on Parade, who admitted he quite liked shaving his legs and wearing nail polish for the cross-dressing role of Captain Terri Dennis in the Donmar production; Best New Play went to August Wilson, accepting by video from Seattle, for Jitney at the National; and Michael Boyd proved a popular choice for his contribution to the RSC's acclaimed "This England" series of Shakespeare's History plays, winning the Best Director award for Henry VI Parts I, II and III as well as Richard III at the Young Vic.

The Royal Court won in two new categories - Most Promising Playwright and Most Promising Performer - both for its production of Grae Cleugh's debut play Fucking Games which starred Benjamin Davies. When accepting the Playwright award, Cleugh revealed that he is still in drama school in Scotland. "My biggest dream is to be an actor," he admitted, "but it feels pretty good right now to be a playwright too."

The Royal Opera House won both of the opera-related categories - Best New Production and Outstanding Achievement while the corresponding dance awards went to Sankai Juku's Hibiki and Mark Morris, respectively.

The Audience Award for most popular long-running West End production went to The Phantom of the Opera. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber accepted the award, after a wobble - on the steps to the stage - from vertigo, and then beckoned impresario Cameron Mackintosh up to the podium to share the accolade with him.

Celebrities Turn Out for Awards

In addition to the award winners mentioned above, there were scores of other stars in attendance at the 2002 Oliviers. Michael Ball, Janie Dee, Brian Blessed, Anita Dobson, Meera Syal, Imelda Staunton, Claire Sweeney, Eddie Izzard and Nigel Planer (as his alter ego thesp Nicholas Craig) all presented awards. Other celebrities seen at the Victoria Palace and at the celebration lunch afterwards at the London Hilton included Barbara Cook, Simon Russell Beale, Malcolm Sinclair and Samuel West.

The evening also included a minute's silence in memory of the late Princess Margaret, who's funeral was today. The princess was described as a "great patron of the arts" who gave "tremendous support and encouragement to artists and companies all over the country".

Highlights of today's Oliviers ceremony - and the past year in West End theatre - will be broadcast on BBC2 tomorrow night, Saturday 16 February at 7.00pm. For the full list of winners and nominees from the 2002 Laurence Olivier Awards, click here.

- by Terri Paddock