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In the heat of the moment

Some notable failures didn't spoil a successful, if sweaty, year on the stage

The decisions have been tough. The debate has sometimes been heated. It has been an exceptional year. We wish everyone could have had prizes. But enough of the award ceremony clichés - you know and love them as much as I do. Here they are: the eagerly awaited, inaugural, ready to be painted front of house the length and breadth of Shaftesbury Avenue, New Statesman theatre awards, judged by your panel of, well, me.

Best translation to the boards by a TV star

Plenty of competition, of course. There was Zoë "My Family" Wanamaker, excellent as the menopausal Beatrice in the National Theatre's Much Ado. Tamsin Greig, from Green Wing and Love Soup (not to mention The Archers), brought terrific comic timing to Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage and, where it was needed just as much, David Hare's Gethsemane. Catherine Tate risked playing big in the slight West End comedy Under the Blue Sky and almost broke a leg doing so (she twisted her ankle). But there is no denying the winner: David Tennant, aka Dr Who, who brought a new school-age audience to the RSC as a sexy, cheeky Hamlet whose every word could be grasped (even if the play remained slippery).

Most fluid production

Ridiculusmus's Tough Time, Nice Time at the Barbican was set in a sauna and featured two German sex tourists talking in a bath for 70 minutes. The jury was not sure if the bath was actually filled. However, the Young Vic was turned into a dark and shallow pond for In the Red and Brown Water; it made something elemental of this story about an athlete who ends up drowned in a black Louisiana ghetto. But the award goes to Nick Hytner's Much Ado About Nothing, set around a Tuscan swimming pool that few in the audience guessed was real until Simon Russell Beale's Benedick dived in and emerged dripping - perhaps the key moment of physical comedy in 2008.

Better David Hare play

What he writes he gets put on, but there were only two outings this year: so, "better" not "best" is the category. The Vertical Hour - featuring a shouty little doctor, played by Anton Lesser, trying to turn a dull American academic against his son - bored for Court and country in February. So that makes Gethsemane, his "keep the faith play" about new Labour's betrayal, the clear winner, doesn't it?

Most overrated play

The Old Vic's Speed-the-Plow was certainly speedily played by Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey but, had they slowed down, the audience might have noticed how underpowered David Mamet's celebrated Hollywood satire was.

Fragments was not a play, but five short pieces by Samuel Beckett. When Peter Brook decided to direct, expectations were inevitably high. Each and every one was dashed.

But the panel is willing to stick its neck out. At the National, the actor Ralph Fiennes, translator Frank McGuinness and director Jonathan Kent gave it their all, but Oedipus by some Greek called Sophocles wins the gong for overegged wrong-headedness.

Most underrated play

The panel called Michael Frayn's Afterlife, again at the National, a masterpiece. Most other critics disagreed. The panel questioned its sanity, but could not remember a more perfectly realised evening's theatre all year - even if, looking back on it, the life of the Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt may not have deserved the love Frayn lavished on it.

Most deserved mercy killing

Gone With the Wind, the Musical. It was gone after 79 performances - and not one of them with a memorable song or a decent lyric. Trevor Nunn: you owe me my three and a half hours back.

Most undeserved short run

God of Carnage. Having assembled a dream cast that included Ralph Fiennes, Ken Stott and Tamsin Greig, the producers decided against recasting at the end of their 16 weeks, so audiences missed a play in its way as sophisticated and as funny as Yasmina Reza's Art (which is probably still on somewhere a dozen years after it arrived in the West End).

And finally . . .

Hottest venue of the year

Another close call. The panel was nearly asphyxiated in the Pit at the Barbican during Tough Time, Nice Time (although it had the excuse of its sauna setting). At the Camden People's Theatre, the panel all but passed out during a fringe performance by a promising newcomer, Jessica Luxembourg, but it was the middle of July. So the prize goes to the Bush Theatre, whose appalling ventilation did its best to ruin a rather good Neil LaBute double bill. And this was January. Talking of which - see you then.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Also recommended

Apollo Theatre, London W1
A misery memoirist and a mother's revenge. Remind you of any recent court case?

Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury
Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2
Could be a reason to be cheerful.

Sunset Boulevard
Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Lloyd Webber's most underrated and, perhaps, best musical.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special