The Lord of the Rings star, 77, was recognised for his outstanding contribution to British theatre and during his acceptance speech, he reflected on the importance of childhood visits to his local stage shows in helping him choose his career path.

"If it hadn't been for those local theatres, where I did my first theatregoing, I wouldn't be an actor, of course not," the star, who started his career in Bolton, England, explained.

Vanessa Redgrave took home the Gielgud Award for excellence in the dramatic arts, and credited theatre shows with helping to "keep society sane".

"And boy do we need to be kept sane at the moment!" she quipped, referencing the troubled state of British politics. "And if I've helped along the way, I'm glad."

Paapa Essiedu was another big winner, scoring the Best Performance in a Play award for his portrayal of Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. He became the first black actor to tackle the lead role in the Shakespeare tragedy.

Other honours at the London ceremony, which celebrates theatre productions outside the British capital, went to Flowers For Mrs Harris and Show Boat, which shared the Best Musical Production honour. Ironically, they were both directed by Daniel Evans.

Clare Burt landed Best Performance in a Musical for Flowers for Mrs Harris, and Rebecca Trehearns' turn as Julie La Verne in Show Boat was named Best Supporting Performance. Cuttin' It by Charlene James was named Best New Play.