Preview: West End Theatre Autumn/Winter 2008

The last weeks of August are a traditionally quiet time for London’s theatres. The Edinburgh festival is well under way and the weather is, in theory at least, not all that conducive to sitting in a stuffy room for two or more hours.

So there are few, if any, new openings in the capital; but that all changes in September, when theatregoers are suddenly spoilt for choice.

The first big West End opening of the autumn season is Rain Man at the Apollo.
Based on the Oscar-winning film, it has been adapted for the stage by Dan Gordon and stars Hollywood import Josh Hartnett in the Tom Cruise role of a young, self-centred guy who, after the death of his father, discovers, unbeknownst it to him, that he has an institutionalised, autistic, older brother. Dustin Hoffman, of course, won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the latter character and his performance, as the stuttering, shuffling, K Mart obsessed, tooth-pick counting Raymond has become part of the cultural tapestry; it will be a difficult task indeed to shake off memories of Hoffman’s portrayal. Adam Godley is the actor charged with that particularly unenviable task.

As for Hartnett, he is just one of a long line of American actors keen to cross the pond and tread the boards in the West End. It seems to be almost a rite of passage for some, either as a way of proving one’s thespian worth or re-igniting a stagnant career. Whether he falls into the ranks of the good (Kathleen Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow), the not too bad (Christian Slater) or the truly ugly (Madonna) remains to be seen.

It is also another in a stream of recent screen-to-stagers, taking a familiar film and sticking it in front of a West End audience, and while this isn’t necessarily an awful thing, for every Billy Elliot or All About My Mother that makes something new and interesting from its source material, remember there’s also a Dirty Dancing, a film regurgitated on stage for fans to chant along to their favourite lines. And while, admittedly, the West End is not known for innovation, productions like this do smack somewhat of a lack of imagination and of an eye fixed firmly on the box office takings.

One of the more exciting events of the coming months is the start of the Donmar Warehouse’s year-long residency at Wyndham’s Theatre. Having weathered accusations of elitism over last year’s sold-out production of Othello, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor, the Donmar’s artistic director Michael Grandage has admitted that despite the show’s success, “it did turn into a bit of a bad news story because people couldn’t get in” Indeed the much coveted tickets were reported at the time to be exchanging hands for hugely inflated sums and the Donmar was labelled (unfairly, the place can’t help its small size, seating only 250) by some as a club, only open to those who could afford it.

Taking that on board the Donmar is reaching beyond its walls and staging work in the newly refurbished Wyndham’s on Charing Cross Road. While the Covent Garden theatre will continue to stage work, including productions of Strindberg’s Creditors (in a new version by David Grieg) and TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion, Grandage has attracted an amazing roster of talent for what is an ambitious and exciting season of productions that are bigger in scale and, arguably, broader in appeal. The first of these is Ivanov, which stars Kenneth Branagh in the title role and features a hugely exciting supporting cast, that includes Lucy Briers, Malcolm Sinclair, Gina McKee, Andrea Riseborough and Lorcan Cranitch. This is followed, in December, by Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi, no less, lined up to play Malvolio. Subsequent productions at Wyndham’s, in 2009, include Madame de Sade with a cast that includes Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike, and, lastly, by Jude Law’s Hamlet. Law is no stranger to the stage, having more than acquitted himself in productions of Dr Faustus and Tis Pity She’s A Whore, but, in tackling Hamlet, media attention will be on him like never before.

Law’s is of course, not the only hotly anticipated Hamlet to hit the West End. Before that Londoners will have a chance to see David Tennant’s acclaimed RSC performance (currently packing them in at Stratford-upon-Avon) when it transfers to the Novello in December. Though it was the casting of Tennant, Doctor Who himself, that Jonathan Miller used to fuel his recent tirade on what he saw as the insidious tendency towards celebrity casting in West End, he ignored the fact that Tennant has a strong stage background, and his performance has more than appeased any sceptics.

Other productions worth getting worked up about include the London transfer of Rupert Goold’s production of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, which has also received strong reviews at Chichester, and Riflemind, by Sydney Theatre Company’s Andrew Upton (Cate Blanchett’s husband), about a band reuniting after twenty years apart. This latter production is to be directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Trafalgar Studios. Hoffman is one of those actors who rarely puts a foot wrong in whatever he touches. He has directed before, his production of Jesus Hopped The A Train played at the Donmar and then at the Arts Theatre in London, winning an Olivier award, and his association with the project is enough to get people quivering with anticipation.

Following the short summer run of David Eldridge’s Under The Blue Sky, the Duke Of York’s Theatre will play host to a revival of Pinter’s No Man’s Land featuring the intriguing double-header of Michael Gambon and Little Britain‘s David Walliams. A stage adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pear Earring, starring Adrain Dunbar as the Dutch artist Vermeer, is also due to open at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in September, following the early closing of musical Marguerite. Over at the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey is upping his game by staging Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of interconnected plays, Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round The Garden in a reconfigured in-the-round space, with a cast that includes Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes and Ben Miles.

Less is known about Imagine This, a new musical opening in November at the boxy New London Theatre, the home of the ill-fated Gone With The Wind. Set in Poland during 1942, it concerns a group of actors in the Warsaw Ghetto who stage plays to inspire hope and optimism within their community and has been predictably dubbed the ‘holocaust musical’ in the press. It features book and lyrics by Glenn Berenbeim and David Goldsmith and if it disappears as quickly as the theatre’s last offering (though there’s nothing to say it will), the New London could soon be taking up the mantel of the capital’s most jinxed venue, a theatrical dead zone akin to the Shaftsbury (though its curse has, of course, now been lifted by Hairspray).

While it seems that rarely a month passes without one critic or another getting in a tizzy about the ‘plight of the straight play’ in the West End (with Nicholas de Jongh the latest but surely not the last to sound a lament), there are actually far more dramatic offerings than musicals opening this autumn, with only Imagine This and the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which opens at the Savoy in December, flying the flag for musical theatre.

Over at the National, autumn highlights include Ralph Fiennes’ forthcoming appearance in new version of Oedipus by Frank McGuinnes and David Hare’s latest political drama, Gethsemane, which will star Tamsin Grieg as a compromised MP. And if you missed Marianne Elliot’s wonderfully moving staging of Michael Murpurgo’s War Horse last year, it is returning for a welcome second run in September.

Rich pickings? To a point. There are a couple of safe and obvious choices, bolstered by big names and broad appeal, but this is balanced by a number of genuinely exciting productions. Roll on September.

Click here for our National Theatre autumn preview

Click here for our Royal Court autumn preview

Click here for our Lyric Hammersmith autumn preview

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