For the first time in their 44-year history, the Evening Standard Drama Awards decided not to make an award for Best Play of 1999.

Chairman of the judges, Max Hastings, editor of the Evening Standard, said at the ceremony at the Savoy Hotel last night (Monday), 'We felt it would diminish the award to give it to a new work that did not live up to the extraordinary achievments of the past.'

Past winners have included such contemporary classics as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Another first for the awards was the creation of a new category - Theatrical Event of the Year - won by The Lion King, the universally acclaimed stage version of Disney's feature-length cartoon.

Julie Taymor, who directed the show, flew in from Los Angeles to collect her prize from Joan Collins. In her acceptance speech, Taymor said, 'This award is about making theatre alive, making it a sacred place.' She went on to say that the team involved in adapting the film has tried 'to create poetry on stage.'

The Best Musical award itself went to the much smaller, less expensive Spend, Spend, Spend, based on the life of the Sixties pools winner Viv Nicholson, and starring Barbara Dickson.

Trevor Nunn was named as Best Director for his work at the National Theatre on The Merchant of Venice and the long-forgotten Maxim Gorky play, Summerfolk, both of which are still in the repertoire.

Best Actor was Stephen Dillane for his performance in a revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing at the Donmar Warehouse; Janie Dee, whose performance as an android in Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential had all the critics reaching for their superlatives, won Best Actress, which should ensure the play a longer run at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Simon Callow, theatrical polymath and director of The Pajama Game, was one of the winners of the two-part Patricia Rothermere award for services to the theatre. The other half of the title - a drama school scholarship for an impoverished student - went to 19-year-old Martin Rea from Belfast.

In a timely swipe at the commercial sector, Max Hastings said the future for the West End was 'bleak if West End theatres were not presenting serious work as well as incessant musicals.'

The winners of the 1999 Evening Standard Drama Awards were as follows.

  • Best Actor: Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing.
  • Best Actress: Janie Dee in Comic Potential.
  • Best Musical: Spend, Spend, Spend.
  • Best Director: Trevor Nunn for The Merchant of Venice and Summerfolk.
  • Most Promising Playwright: Rebecca Gilman for The Glory of Living.
  • Best Stage Designer: Tim Hatley for Suddenly Last Summer, Sleep With Me, and The Darker Face of the Earth.
  • Outstanding Newcomer: Eve Best for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.
  • The Patricia Rothermere Award: Simon Callow and Martin Rea.
  • Theatrical Event of the Year: The Lion King.