Given that it's always a good year for men in theatre, 2003 has been a good year for women - in fringe theatre and cabaret. The best actors I have seen this year might be called rather veteran: Warren Mitchell, Tom Courtenay and Kenneth Branagh - if you can accuse Branagh of being veteran, and I think you can, as he's been successful almost since he cast off romper suits. He triumphed as a man spiralling into meltdown in David Mamet's Edmond at the National; Cour-tenay hit the irony button as Philip Larkin in Pretending To Be Me (Comedy Theatre) without delving too deeply into the poet's much-publicised shady side. And at the Apollo Theatre, Warren Mitchell is recreating, in the shambling furniture dealer of Arthur Miller's The Price, an almost extinct species, immaculately supported by Larry Lamb (and if ever an actor transcended the cognomen syndrome it is Larry Lamb). I have always thought Mitchell a great actor, hampered in this country by what would have made him a superstar in America - his comic persona and his ethnicity. In this production, first staged by Sean Holmes at the Tricycle Theatre, he taps into a vein of eccentricity, technical virtuosity and otherness to make a perfect fusion of actor and playwright.
The girls were best, though. Diana Quick and Madelaine Potter gave three-dimensional reality to Jean Rhys and Bertha Rochester in Polly Teale's inventive and haunting After Mrs Rochester at the Lyric Hammersmith, London. I saw it with my children on my birthday after a scary stay with my husband in hospital, and I remember how, in seconds, the production swept all the fear and worry out of my head. Theatre can do that so easily that it's rather irritating when it doesn't.
His Girl Friday at the National disappointed me, despite the great style of Zoe Wanamaker, because it is an inferior film script to the play The Front Page, from which it sprang. I played Mollie Molloy in the Michael Blakemore production of The Front Page at the Old Vic, so I am biased, but in this rat-tat-tat evening, parts like Mollie's went for nothing. It is probably not wise for me to ask why do a film script when you could do the real thing - especially when I'm starring in Thoroughly Modern Millie - but I came straight home and tracked down Blakemore in Biarritz to congratulate him on the brilliance of his production in 1972.
Best of all was Janet McTeer as Petruccio in the all-female Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre. I had never seen her before, dammit, and now I know what all the fuss is about. From her first entrance, peeing up against a pillar, she was funny, macho and dead sexy, and managed to make that difficult turnabout for Kathryn Hunter's violent Katherine utterly comprehensible. Best Direction prize goes here, too, to Phyllida Lloyd, to whom every actor should write asking for a job.
Musically, I thrilled to Angela Richards as Dorothy Fields in the compilation of the great lady's lyrics at the King's Head in London. Richards is so laid-back as to be supine and her voice puts other, better-known divas to shame.
Again, the Jermyn Street Theatre had us on our feet roaring for more from Barb Jungr, who gave us a stunning music lesson around the works of Jacques Brel and Bob Dylan, in a voice that would have brought a goose out in goose bumps. My other cabaret thrill was being present at a two-and-a-half-hour concert given by a then unknown jazz musician, Jamie Cullum, at the David Lloyd sports centre in Finchley - and you won't find Michaels Billington or Coveney strutting their stuff round those parts of town too often. Jamie, then 22, was simply destined for glory and I felt privileged to be sipping a healthy drink at his pixie feet. We were to meet again, at a celebration at St James's Palace for 50 years of the monarchy, where Jamie sang a smoochy "Wee Small Hours of the Morning", I did a bit of Grenfell, and on the way in a policeman asked me if I was going to "do your Maureen Lipman tonight".
The real delight of the evening was in the line-up, when Janie Dee presented raffle tickets to the Queen from her daughter's primary school. The story goes that Her Majesty won some dry-cleaning tokens. Please God, let it be true.
The new Hampstead Theatre proved as big on hospitality areas as it was incredibly short on audience legroom. Teething problems about its deficit and its choice of plays aside, this one seems insoluble. The theatre world lost one of its most powerful sources of energy and talent when Denis Quilley died. I've never seen a man more at ease or at home than Denis about to step on to a stage. He was definitive in Privates on Parade, Mack and Mabel, Sweeney Todd, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Front Page - I could go on. He was a big theatre cat and we shall all miss his baritone purr.
I shall as usual enhance my Christmas spirit by seeing the young actors, both able and disabled, of Chicken Shed. This year's Christmas show is called The Night Before Christmas and I urge you towards their Southgate theatre to be entertained and inspired.
Maureen Lipman is appearing in Thoroughly Modern Millie, booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 (0870 906 3828) until 8 May