London Theatre Preview: Autumn 2005

London Theatre Preview, Autumn 2005Two Thousand Years by Mike Leigh
Two Thousand Years by Mike Leigh, one of London’s theatre highlights this autumn.
(Photo: John Haynes)The buzz and fuss of the Edinburgh festival has abated for another year and it’s time for London’s theatres to unfurl their autumn schedules.

Perhaps because of the RSC’s forthcoming Complete Works season the Bard has a low profile in the capital over the coming months (with one notable exception).

Instead we are faced with a plethora of British actors getting back to their stage roots, plus some naked hippies in Notting Hill, and a show that boasts a ‘duck wrangler’ on its list of creative credits…

The play that everyone is talking about is Two Thousand Years opening imminently at the National. A rare new work for the stage by Mike Leigh, it has already managed the rather remarkable feat of selling out before it even had a confirmed title. Leigh has of late been more focused on his film work, most recently directing the Oscar nominated 1950s abortion drama Vera Drake. But he made his name in the theatre, with plays such as the rightly celebrated Abigail’s Party, and his return to the medium has been a long time coming.

Two Thousand Years was developed, like all Leigh’s work, through cast improvisation over a prolonged rehearsal period and, until the week before previews began, it was known simply as A New Play By Mike Leigh, but that was enough to ensure all advance tickets were snapped up and those without sufficient foresight will have to queue on the day if they want to gauge what all the fuss was about.

Elsewhere at the National, Michael Attenborough directs David Edgar’s latest, Playing With Fire. Billed as ‘a new play about Britain today’ it tells the story of a New Labour fixer sent to get a failing local authority back on track and once again shows the National’s admirable willingness to engage with contemporary social issues on the stage.

Other season highlights include Samuel Adamson’s new version of Ibsen’s rarely performed Pillars Of The Community, staged to mark the centenary of the playwright’s death and, opening in November, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy. This eighteenth century set tale sounds like just the kind of sumptuous production to brighten up the winter months. December also brings another chance to see Alan Bennett’s schoolroom drama The History Boys before the film version, featuring the original cast, reaches the cinemas.

Two Thousand Years at the National sold out before its title was even confirmed. A week before previews began it was still known only as A New Play By Mike Leigh.

Still on the South Bank, September sees the start of previews of the Old Vic’s production of Richard II directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Kevin Spacey as the eponymous monarch. Spacey’s inaugural year as artistic director at the Old Vic, while a commercial success, didn’t go down to well with the critics. Both Cloaca and National Anthems were mercilessly picked apart and even The Philadelphia Story, whilst better received, was slammed for being too populist. Though each production had its failings, for a while it seemed as if he couldn’t win; at one point even a standard request about mobile phone use was spun into a negative news story.

His greatest error seems to have been misjudging British tastes: Cloaca was a bit too close to the terminally ubiquitous Art; Yuppie satire National Anthems hadn’t aged particularly well. He was a bit too high profile, a bit too, well, American, and there was a definite air of snobbery in some of the crueller reviews (that dubious dog-walking incident didn’t help).

Regardless of all that, Spacey is a gifted actor, unarguably adept at playing flawed, weak men and Richard II falls firmly into that category. It will be fascinating to see what he makes of the role. (For those unmoved by the prospect, the Old Vic will also be bringing back a reworked version of Aladdin in time for the Christmas panto season, and with it the somewhat unique opportunity to see Gandalf in hotpants).

The coming months will also see the West End less littered with famous faces than it has been of late. Rob Lowe is probably the most prominent import, taking the lead in the stage version of West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin’s military courtroom drama A Few Good Men at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

But the bulk of the big names on the stage this autumn are in fact British. Joseph Fiennes stars opposite Francesca Annis in Epitaph For George Dillon at the Comedy theatre; Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins are set star in Pirandello’s As You Desire Me at the Playhouse; John Hurt will share the stage with the underrated Ken Stott in Heroes at Wyndham’s and James Nesbitt will attempt to escape the shadow of those Yellow Pages ads in Shoot The Crow at Trafalgar Studios.

The Donmar continues to keep its standards admirably high, casting acclaimed stage actor Simon Russell Beale in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. October also sees its sell-out production of Mary Stuart transfer to the Apollo, the second major production of Schiller to hit Shaftesbury Avenue this year after Michael Grandage’s excellent and atmospheric Don Carlos.

The new project of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, the men behind The Play What I Wrote is harder to categorise. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, Ducktastic is billed as a ‘Comedy Spectacular’ and will feature, well, some ducks that’s for sure. It opens at the Albery in October.

It’s worth remembering that two of the year’s strongest plays, Robert Falls’ Chicago production of Death of a Salesman by the late Arthur Miller and Michael Grandage’s superior version of Guys and Dolls are still running at the Lyric and the Piccadilly respectively. Though if you want to catch Ewan McGregor’s take on Luck Be A Lady tonight you better hurry. Eastenders Nigel Harman will be taking over as charismatic gambler Sky Masterson in December.

Away from the West End there are some equally essential productions. The Almeida kicks things off with Lindsay Posner’s production of David Mamet’s Romance with a cast featuring John “Frasier’s dad” Mahoney. Over recent years, Posner has directed a number of Mamet plays in the West End – Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Oleanna amongst them – some more successfully than others it has to be said. His production of the two hander A Life In The Theatre was a rather limp affair that somewhat squandered the talents of Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson; it will be interesting to see if he fares better in a smaller space.

Other Off West End highlights include the revival of seminal Sixties musical Hair at Notting Hill’s intimate Gate Theatre; another chance to see My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner’s acclaimed staging of the diaries of the young American activist, who died in Israel aged 23, at the Royal Court; and Martin Freeman taking a break from hitch-hiking round the galaxy in a dressing gown and posing for dubious M&S ad campaigns to star in Soho Theatre’s Blue Eyes and Heels.

The return of London’s Dance Umbrella festival means that contemporary dance fans should also have much to look forward to between now and Christmas but the undisputed dance highlight of the months ahead has to be Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells. Yes, that’s right, after injecting bare torsos and leather trousers into Swan Lake the renowned choreographer is turning his attention to Tim Burton’s Gothic suburban fairytale. Burton and Bourne – on paper its sounds like a dream pairing – we’ll only have to wait until November to find out.

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