London West End Theatre: Autumn 2006 : preview

August is always a quiet month for theatre in London. The hot weather has never been great for the West End – with many of the velvet-bedecked theatres remaining stubbornly resistant to air-conditioning – and of course the Edinburgh festival is by then in full flow.

Things get back underway with a vengeance from September though, with a slew of new productions grappling for attention. Our Theatre Editor Natasha Tripney provides a guide to the hot tickets and potential turkeys…
This autumn is undoubtedly the season of the musical, with a couple of big Broadway shows heading to the UK. Avenue Q has, of course, already opened – to a middling critical response, but a far greater buzz amongst the theatregoing public; its mix of smutty puppet humour and good-natured musical numbers has proved a winning combination and the show has just extended its booking period to January 2007.

The second major transfer from the US opens at the end of September. Based on a bestselling book by Gregory Maguire, Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz – and draws on the well-known characters from the Wizard of Oz novels. A tale of two witches, the introverted Elphaba and the perky and popular Glinda, its playing at the Apollo Victoria, with Tony Award-winning Broadway belter Idina Menzel taking the green-skinned lead.

The American trio is completed by Spamalot, the Monty Python musical with a score by Eric Idle and John Du Prez. The production opens at the Palace Theatre in October and sees Tim Curry returning to the West End stage for the first time in almost twenty years, as King Arthur, though he will be replaced in 2007 by Simon Russell Beale – currently starring in the National’s production of The Life Of Galileo – who recently played the role on Broadway.

The publicity machine for The Sound Of Music is already in full flow care of tedious reality-panel-talent show thingy How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

The autumn is not all about US imports. Rufus Norris, the director of the excellent Festen and the less well-received Market Boy, brings his production of Cabaret to the Lyric in October and Trevor Nunn’s staging of Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess opens at the Savoy in November. The National is also getting in on the act with a production of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change. But these shows are all eclipsed somewhat in terms of anticipation by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of Roger and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music, set to open in November at the Palladium. The publicity machine is already in full flow care of tedious reality-panel-talent show thingy How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, as is the attendant and slightly predictable controversy. How many shows will the winner actually star in? Is the programme taking away work from ‘real’ musical theatre professionals? What the programme has unequivocally demonstrated however is that, as The Play’s The Thing proved, television producers have still not found a successful way to make the world of the stage work on the screen.

Somewhere in the midst of all this Daddy Cool the Boney M musical will open at the Shaftesbury Theatre, though given the problems that have beset the production from the start (the opening date has been delayed on several occasions) and the pretty uninspiring concept, it’s doubtful that this Michelle Collins-starrer will trouble the competition too much.

Straight plays are rather thin on the ground this autumn, though there are some interesting exceptions. At the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey will be attempting to repair the damage done to his reputation by the debacle of Resurrection Blues, by teaming up again with Howard Davies, who directed him in The Iceman Cometh, for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Moon For The Misbegotten in which he will star alongside Eve Best. Spacey won raves for Iceman so hopefully the production will give the Old Vic the critical hit it needs.

The National concludes its commendable Travelex 10 season with Simon Russell Beale taking the lead in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. It will also be staging a production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer in the Cottesloe before bringing back last year’s dark childrens drama Coram Boy for the festive period. More divertingly, the Trafalgar Studios, housed in the former Whitehall Theatre, will be producing Martin Shermans Bent in their larger space – with Alan Cumming now confirmed to star – while the smaller downstairs space features an intriguingly eclectic line-up, beginning with a transfer for Nina Raines Rabbit (well received when it premiered at Islingtons Old Red Lion earlier this year) and following on with Eric Bogosian’s Notes From The Underground and fringe favourite Not About Heroes, a two-hander about war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Oh and something called Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage opens at the Aldwych Theatre in November, but if I put my hands over my ears and hum really loudly, perhaps it will go away…

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