The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield was named Theatre of the Year at the annual Barclays Theatre Awards, in a ceremony held at last night at London's Royal Court Theatre. Other major awards went to Abi Morgan's Splendour, named Best New Play and Vicky Featherstone, named best director for her production of that play, with Newbury's Watermill production of Gondoliers, which subsequently transferred to the West End's Apollo Theatre, named Best Musical.

The Barclays Awards are the only only awards presentation to reflect excellence in theatre on a nationwide basis and this year a total of 15 awards were offered. Presented by the Theatrical Management Association (TMA), the trade body which provides a professional support network for the performing arts industry, the awards are sponsored by Barclays Bank, with two awards being sponsored by Equity and The Stage newspaper.

In a unique nominating process, 150 members of the theatregoing public are appointed each year to serve on the theatre panel; this year, they saw more than 700 productions at over 180 theatres across the UK, between 1 September 2000 and 31 August 2001. From this emerges a shortlist which is put forward to a panel of professional critics who cover work across the UK; three nominations are selected for each category and voting is done by secret ballot for the winner.

In an equally unique ceremony, the irreverent host for the evening, comedian and sometime playwright Arthur Smith, speedily despatched the proceedings by not permitting long acceptance speeches, but rather asking winners a brief question or two. (Smith also suggested new categories of his own, including Best Tantrum in a Dress Rehearsal). Prizes - a specially designed silver goblet - were presented by a gala array of theatrical and musical personalities, including Siobhan Redmond, Isla Blair, Sian Phillips, Meera Syal, Penelope Wilton, Donald Sinden, Clive Rowe and Sally Burgess.

The presentations were interspersed by live musical extracts from the nominees for Best Musical. In addition to Gondoliers, these comprised Chichester Festival Theatre’s My One and Only, from which Tim Flavin and Janie Dee performed a medley of songs, and Dundee Rep’s Mince?, written and composed by Forbes Masson. The song from Mince? was performed by Ann Louise Ross, who went on to take an award herself for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in another Dundee Rep production, The Winter's Tale.

Leading the other acting categories, Paterson Joseph was named Best Actor for his performance in Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre Company's Les Blancs (winning over the Olivier Award recipient in the same category, Simon Russell Beale, nominated again here for his National Theatre performance as Hamlet which was seen on a UK tour, and Samuel West, nominated for the title role of the RSC's Richard II, also seen on a UK tour).

Kate O'Toole, the actress daughter of Sian Phillips and Peter O'Toole who were both in the audience to see her victory, took the Best Actress Award for her role in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, seen at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, winning over the also nominated Morag Hood and Helen Schlesinger. Freddie Annobil was named Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Yerma, co-produced by The Theatre, Chipping Norton and Fifth Amendment, on tour.

Laura Hopkins was named Best Designer for Mister Heracles at West Yorkshire Playhouse, with the Unicorn Theatre's Tom's Midnight Children presented with the Equity Award for Best Show for Children and Young People. The Stage's Award for Special Achievement in Regional Theatre - which seeks to reward a recipient who has made a real difference to the sector - was presented to the Wales Association for the Performing Arts. The Barclays Award for Most Welcoming Theatre went to the Cambridge Arts Theatre, with Darlington's Civic and Llandudno's North Wales Theatre also nominated.

The Barclays Award for Best Touring Production went to Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon, seen at the National Theatre's Lyttelton and also on tour, in a category that also comprised Grid Iron's Decky Does a Bronco, presented on tour by the Almeida Theatre Company, and the double-bill of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair, co-produced by Out of Joint, the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Soho Theatre Company. A spokesman for Barclays further announced that next year they will host another award, to reflect cultural diversity.

Finally, awards for outstanding achievements in opera and dance went respectively to Richard Jones, Vladimir Jurowski and the company for Welsh National Opera's production of The Queen of Spades, and to Rambert Dance Company for their performance of Mats Ek's She Was Black.

- by Mark Shenton