As always, the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards 2019 ceremony at the Prince of Wales Theatre on 11 February was a joyous affair, celebrating the manifold pleasures that the stage has to offer.

The event was presided over by Henry Hitchings, who announced that it was to be his final duty before retiring as Chair of the Circle’s drama section and then demonstrated previously hidden skills as a highly competent stand-up comedian during a breezy introduction.

More seriously, Hitchings also reminded audience members that “critics are passionate about theatre” and, just as importantly, they are “people who really know about theatre”, making these awards highly valued by every recipient.

The first two awards went to contrasting winners. First, Matt Wolf enthused about the debut performance in Dear Evan Hanson, which won Sam Tutty The Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The impressive youngster delivered a modest but touching acceptance speech to set the ball rolling.

The Best Actress award was shared, Lyn Gardner reminding us all of the genius of Juliet Stevenson both in The Doctor and throughout her working life. The actress then noted that she has rarely been garlanded during a career that now stretches to 42 years. She was proud to share the trophy with, in her absence, Sharon D Clarke for Death of a Salesman.

Fiona Mountford presented the Best Actor prize to Andrew Scott for Present Laughter. After a wonderful year, Scott seemed duly grateful and delivered the funniest and most personal speech of the evening, even embarrassing himself by recollecting a performance of Hamlet during which he “shot” Juliet Stevenson at point blank range.

A new Special Award celebrated the skills of ace lighting designer Paule Constable, whose career was encapsulated beautifully by David Benedict before her daughter collected the prize.

As Michael Billington pointed out when handing over The Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance, this is very rarely won for a comedic performance but he had no doubt that Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge was fully deserving. This view was clearly shared by both the audience and a significant proportion of the cast, who turned up to collect the prize on behalf of the winner.

The Best Director Award was presented by Mark Shenton to Jamie Lloyd for a busy year that included Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Evita at the Regent’s Park, Open Air Theatre and Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theatre

Jessie Thompson gave a succinct speech in which she noted that there was never any doubt about the winner of the Most Promising Playwright award. Strangely, the only person who seemed surprised was the highly deserving winner, Jasmine Lee-Jones for Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner.

Andzej Lukowski presented the Best Designer prize to Tom Scutt, making it clear that while this was specifically for his work on A Very Expensive Poison, he could as easily have been the recipient for either Fairview or Berberian Sound Studio.

Prior to the announcement by Susanna Clapp of The Michael Billington Award for Best New Play, to great applause, Henry Hitchings presented the recently retired Michael Billington with a poster-sized eulogy from his fellow critics, expressing their appreciation for his 48 years in harness. The award itself would certainly have met with the great man’s approval, going to Lucy Prebble for A Very Expensive Poison.

Perhaps the most predictable winner of the extended lunch break was The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical presented to the producers by Sarah Hemming. She gushed justifiably about the wondrous Come from Away, a 9/11 show with heart, soul, music and comedy in equal measures.