Dame Maggie Smith’s return to the stage after a 12-year absence has won her a record fifth best actress prize at the UK’s oldest theatre awards, 57 years after her first.
Judges for the 65th Evening Standard theatre awards rewarded Smith’s portrayal of Joseph Goebbels’ secretary in A German Life with the Natasha Richardson award for best actress.
She was given her prize at a ceremony on Sunday evening at the London Coliseum. Top acting prizes also went to Andrew Scott and Anne-Marie Duff; and special prizes went to Sir Ian McKellen and Peter Brook.
Smith, 84, is known to different generations for different roles. For some she’s Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films; for others she’s Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey; and she might also be remembered for the double bill of Peter Shaffer plays, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, in which she starred alongside Kenneth Williams in 1962.
It was for those plays she won her first Evening Standard theatre acting award, repeating her success in 1970 (Hedda Gabler), 1984 (The Way of the World) and 1994 (Three Tall Women).
Her latest award came for her portrayal of Brunhilde Pomsel in a play by Christopher Hampton at the Bridge Theatre. It was based on testimony Pomsel gave when she finally, in the last years before her death aged 106, broke her silence on her experiences of being at the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine.
The five-week run was Smith’s first stage appearance since 2007 and brought widespread critical praise. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called her return a “triumph” and said she played the role “with just the right verbal hesitancy and moral evasiveness”.
Smith said she had been “so thrilled” to be back on stage again and recalled winning her first award. “It was just so long ago that I got one when I started,” she said. “I got it because they couldn’t think of anybody else to give it to.”
Scott was named best actor for his performance in a version of Noel Coward’s classic comedy Present Laughter, which swapped the gender of the hero’s love interest from Joanna to Joe.
The play of the year prize, presented by Olivia Colman, went to Lynn Nottage for Sweat, which explored the consequences of de-industrialisation and was based on interviews with residents of the rustbelt town of Reading, Pennsylvania.
Sweat premiered in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse, part of Josie Rourke’s final season as artistic director. Her farewell production was Sweet Charity, which starred Duff in her musical debut, and on Sunday night it won Duff the best musical performance award.
Robert Icke, known for his radical and sometimes Marmite interpretations of classic texts, won the Milton Shulman award for best director. He won for The Doctor and The Wild Duck at the Almeida, the latter condemned by Billington as a “parasitic rewrite” and “an example of the arrogance of director’s theatre”.
Jamie Lloyd’s production of Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre won best musical; Bunny Christie won best design for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge theatre; Jasmine Lee-Jones won most promising playwright for Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court; and the actor Laurie Kynaston won the emerging talent award for The Son.
McKellen was presented with the editor’s award for his tour of his autobiographical show to more than 80 theatres in the year of his 80th birthday, with all the proceeds going to theatres in need.
The second special award, named after the Standard’s owner Evgeny Lebedev, went to the director Peter Brook and was presented by Glenda Jackson.
For the second time, the ceremony paid tribute to “behind-the-scenes heroes” of theatre. Last year it was dressers; this year 60 stage door keepers were invited on to the stage to take a bow.