Joanna Riding made history today when she officially received the 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It's the first time in Olivier history that the same role in the same production has received the same award. Last year's Best Actress in a Musical prize controversially went to Martine McCutcheon, despite her frequent absences from Trevor Nunn's National Theatre production.

If viewed as righting any wrongs, the Olivier judges also seemed keen to make up for last year's perceived slight against McCutcheon's co-star, Jonathan Pryce, by this year bestowing Best Actor in a Musical to Pryce's replacement, Alex Jennings. When accepting the award, Jennings thanked Pryce for "having done some stuff that I could steal" and, in a series of jibes at McCutcheon's expense, he praised Riding for "managing to play Eliza Doolittle night after night after night after night."

Nunn's the Word

The two awards for the two-year-old production numbered amongst the ten wins overall for National Theatre productions during the final months of Trevor Nunn's artistic directorship (he hands over to Nicholas Hytner in April). So many of the winners thanked Nunn in their acceptance speeches that it provided host Clive Anderson with another running joke about the "most popular Nunn since The Sound of Music", while, adopting a different tack, comedian Alan Davies - when presenting the award for Best Lighting Design (another NT win for The Bacchai, designed by Peter Mumford) which Davies reckoned would be safely edited from the television broadcast - declared jokingly that "Trevor Nunn can f**k off!"

In addition to My Fair Lady's double, the NT won two awards apiece for: Richard Eyre's production of Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton, which opens tonight on Broadway (Best New Play and Best Actress for Clare Higgins); Nunn's revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (Best Supporting Performance for Essie Davis and Best Set Design for Bunny Christie); and for Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words (Best Entertainment and Best Choreographer for Bourne and the company) as part of the Transformation season. The tenth National award was given to Nunn's swansong musical at the South Bank institution, Cole Porter's Anything Goes, which continues its sell-out run at the NT Olivier.

Sam Does Good at the Donmar

Another director heaped with praise at the 2003 Laurence Olivier Awards was former Donmar Warehouse director Sam Mendes - despite the absence of him and the entire company of his triple award-winning double bill of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, who are currently in New York with the productions (in fact, with Vincent in Brixton also transferred there, so many of today's recipients were Stateside that Anderson quipped "we should all have flown over to New York to give these awards out" and later indicated that being in the Big Apple this time next year could improve future contenders' chances).

Simon Russell Beale won Best Actor for taking the title role in Uncle Vanya, while collectively the productions won the awards for Best Play Revival and Best Director for Sam Mendes. The latter two statues - along with a third Special Award for Mendes and his recently ended ten-year reign as the Donmar's artistic director - were presented to the director in New York, after a performance of Uncle Vanya at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Wednesday night.

When accepting his three awards – another Olivier record-breaker as the first hat-trick in the awards history - Mendes admitted he was expecting "maybe one" but not all three and that the Special Award, which had not been nominated, came as the "biggest surprise". He added: "It means the most. I share it with everyone who's worked there (at the Donmar) over the past 12 years and especially my partner in crime, (producer) Caro Newling."

After thanking all and sundry, Mendes grinned that the Best Director award for the double bill is "just for me", though made a point of flattering actress-girlfriend Kate Winslet, who was watching in the audience. "These are two plays about love, and it helps when you direct them to have some personal experience of it."

Outstanding RSC Recognition

Though some hackles were raised last month in reaction to the mere single nomination for the Royal Shakespeare Company in this year's awards, there was compensation on the day. In addition to winning its Best New Comedy field for Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the RSC was given a surprise boost with the Outstanding Achievement of the Year award for director Gregory Doran and his 28-strong ensemble for their acclaimed season of five Jacobean plays, now transferred from Stratford to the West End's Gielgud Theatre, where the run has been extended to 22 March 2003.

Doran was presented with the award by Dame Judi Dench who described the season as "extraordinary". In his speech, Doran called Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt, the commercial producers who backed the season's West End transfer, "angels" as well as "the oddest of odd couples", revealing that Kenwright insists on addressing Holt as "the bag lady" while Holt waves away any financial worries by saying "we'll just get Bill (who owns Everton football club) to sell one of his footballers".

Doran went on to praise both his company and the essence of the ensemble. "The ensemble is the heart of the RSC," he said. "It's where our soul resides. Without the ensemble, we are nothing."

New Musicals Edge In

While a two-year-old revival (My Fair Lady) took home the lead performance awards for musicals, this year did at least see the return of the Best New Musical category, which was notably excised from the 2002 Oliviers. In a popular choice with the crowd at the Lyceum, that award went to Our House, whose book by Tim Firth is inspired by and built around the songs of 1980s ska band Madness. Firth was joined on stage by Madness' lead singer Suggs to accept the statue.

Meanwhile, the award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical went to Paul Baker for his portrayal of Philip Sallon in Boy George's Taboo. Clearly overcome, Baker gave one of the afternoon's most emotional acceptances. "This is absolutely incredible, it's the kind of thing you think only ever happens to other people," he said, while blinking back tears. He honoured show creator and former Culture Club lead singer Boy George, currently starring in the show, as "one of the greatest talents this country has" and marvelled that "we (Taboo) are still there (at The Venue in Leicester Square) a year later and nobody thought we would be."

More Memorable Speeches

There were several other notable speeches at today's ceremony. When receiving the Play Without Words' award for Best Entertainment - in which the show triumphed over Susan Stroman's fellow dance piece Contact (as well as Elaine Stritch at Liberty and comedy sketch show Rory Bremner with John Bird and John Fortune) - director and choreographer Matthew Bourne remarked how pleased he was to have "dance shows so prevalent in the West End at the moment. Dancers are often the third-class citizens of entertainment, after actors and singers. It's good to see so munch dance coming to the fore again. Long may that continue."

Several presenters and winners also used their time on stage to make references to world affairs and the impending war against Iraq. After blowing a kiss to Gwyneth Paltrow in the audience, Most Promising Performer Noel Clarke - who was singled out for his performance in Christopher Shinn's post-911 play Where Do We Live at the Royal Court Upstairs - said he hoped there would be no other such "terrible events" to base future plays around. "Let's create and not destroy," he urged.

And swimming slightly against the Trevor Nunn tide of goodwill, after thanking the director, as well as producer Cameron Mackintosh, for casting him in My Fair Lady, Best Actor in a Musical Jennings added rather peevishly that, if the pair "fancy coming to see the show sometime, it's still on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane".

Other awards today went to: in theatre, Charlotte Eilenberg (Most Promising Playwright for The Lucky Ones at Hampstead) and Jenny Tiramani (Best Costume Design for Twelfth Night at Shakespeare's Globe); in dance, Polyphonia at Sadler's Wells (Best New Dance Production) and Daddy, I've Seen This Piece Six Times and I Still Don't Know Why They're Hurting Each Other at the Barbican Pit (Outstanding Achievement in Dance - for which creator Robyn Orlin thanked her native South Africa "for continuing to provide me with very entertaining and very perverse material"); and in opera, Wozzeck (Best New Opera Production) and new Royal Opera House musical director Antonio Pappano.

While both of the opera awards went to the ROH, when presenting them, opera singer Lesley Garrett paused to praise "the slightly beleaguered" English National Opera, ENO music director Paul Daniel and his company who, she said, prove that "even in troubled times, it's possible to make world-class opera for the widest possible audience."

Celebrities Galore

Presenters at today's awards ceremony were: Ian McKellen, Janet McTeer, Alan Davies, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Trevor Eve, Julia McKenzie, Richard Wilson, Will Young, Caprice, David Suchet, Cathy Tyson, Lesley Garrett and Adam Cooper. In addition to numerous winners and nominees, performing arts stars at today's event included Maureen Lipman, Mike Leigh, Susan Stroman, Mark Morris, and Brian May of Queen.

The 27th annual Laurence Olivier Awards will be broadcast on BBC2 television at 8.30pm tomorrow, Saturday 15 February, in an edited programme that combines the awards presentation with highlights of the past year in London theatre. This year's awards are sponsored by hotel group Hilton UK and Ireland.

TO VIEW THE FULL LIST OF 2003 OLIVIER WINNERS, CLICK HERE.

TO VIEW PICTURES FROM THE POST-SHOW RECEPTION AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, CLICK HERE.