Ian McKellen returns from lording it over the rings to do a West End Dance of Death; Ralph Fiennes finally talks a cure at the National and then goes to the RSC to play Ibsen; Simon Callow and Janie Dee appear on the fringe; Janet McTeer and Eileen Atkins head for the National; Derek Jacobi whips up a second Tempest after 20 years; and comics Alan Davies, Dawn French and Michael Richards flex their acting muscles.

Meanwhile, Jerry Springer becomes the subject of an opera, Abba goes karaoke, Cliff Richard and the Rat Pack come to town (but not in person) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance is revived without the dance but with Denise Van Outen. These are just some of the highlights on the way this year, and Whatsonstage.com will as usual be reviewing them as they open, interviewing the stars, and reporting the news as it happens.

Taking the Michael

But first, news that five out of six of London's most influential producing companies will have new men in charge by the middle of this year (three of them with the first name Michael) means that the tectonic plates of theatreland are shifting significantly in the next few months. Already in place, with his first season at the Donmar Warehouse now up-and-running, is Michael Grandage (replacing Sam Mendes). Grandage's opening season includes a revival of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a new version of Caligula starring Michael Sheen in the title role, and a production of Sondheim's rarely seen Japanese musical, Pacific Overtures, from Chicago.

Also in place with his inaugural season announced is Michael Attenborough, who will lead the Almeida back into its old Islington home in the spring after the lengthy refurbishment instituted by his predecessors, Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent. The first show there will be Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, directed by Trevor Nunn, crossing over from the South Bank in his first freelance assignment after relinquishing the National to the artistic directorship of Nicholas Hytner in April. Subsequent productions in the Almeida's re-opening season include the world premieres of actor/writer Antony Sher's first play, ID and 24-year-old playwright Joanna Laurens' second play, Five Gold Rings, as well as the British premiere of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss.

Another relaunched theatre is Hampstead, where current artistic director Jenny Topper's final season of new plays (by Tim Firth, Tanika Gupta, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Debbie Tucker Green and Tamsin Oglesby) commences in its brand-new, purpose-built space next month before she hands over to Anthony Clark. Finally, (at least for the moment in this round of musical chairs) Adrian Noble will bid farewell to the RSC - by directing Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Ibsen's Brand at Stratford's Swan in April, before transferring to the Haymarket in June - and will be replaced at the RSC by Michael Boyd, the third Michael in the line-up. (Only the Royal Court amongst the capital's most important producing addresses remains in the same artistic hands of Ian Rickson).

Outside London, there have been several other significant changes of artistic directorships, with the effects now starting to be felt in force. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Ian Brown has replaced Jude Kelly; at Chichester Festival Theatre, a triumvirate of directors including Steven Pimlott takes over; and at Bristol, RSC duo David Farr and Simon Reade settle in at the Old Vic.

National News

Trevor Nunn's parting shot from the National is the already open hit revival of Anything Goes which will share casting with his final NT production, the first-ever staging of Love's Labour's Lost at the South Bank theatre. Shakespeare's youthful comedy will also bring to a close Nunn's virtually year-long colonisation of the National's largest theatre, the Olivier, with his own offerings.

The director's final season in charge also sees the much-delayed press opening of Ralph Fiennes starring in The Talking Cure (on 13 January in the Cottesloe), Phyllida Lloyd directing Janet McTeer as The Duchess of Malfi in the Lyttelton (28 January), Eileen Atkins and Corin Redgrave in the London premiere of an Australian play called Honour that flopped quickly on Broadway in the Cottesloe (27 February), and Japan's Ninagawa Company visiting with a production of Pericles (28 March).

Meanwhile, come the spring changing of the guard, Nicholas Hytner’s opening gambit includes the world premiere of the complete version of Jerry Springer - the Opera, a work by composer Richard Thomas and co-writer/director Stewart Lee that has been seen in earlier stages of its development at BAC and last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Other plans for later in the year include Adrian Lester starring as Henry V, Simon Russell Beale in a revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and the promise of the return to the National of David Hare with a new play for the first time since Nunn took over. Speaking in the Daily Mail, Hare has said of his period of exile: "I've missed working at the National very much", but added ruefully that he wasn't the obvious person for the theatre during the "musical climate" of the past few years.

Best of the plays

London also sees the arrival of three more Edinburgh Fringe hits: Rona Munro's powerful prison drama Iron (opening at the Royal Court, 27 January), the three-actor/one-DJ rap version of The Comedy of Errors entitled The Bomb-itty of Errors (due at the Arts, 7 May), and Alan Davies starring in a black comedy entitled Auntie and Me (opening at Wyndham's, 14 January), but with Margaret Tyzack replacing Marcia Warren who co-starred in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Warren stars with Seinfeld's Michael Richards along with Stephen Tompkinson and Thelma Barlow in a West End revival of Arsenic and Old Lace (opening at the Strand, 25 February).

Dawn French returns to the West End in a solo play, My Brilliant Divorce (opening at the Apollo, 24 February), and Derek Jacobi returns to the role of Prospero in The Tempest that he first gave for the RSC in 1982, but this time in the transfer from the Sheffield Crucible to the Old Vic (from 16 January) of a production directed by Michael Grandage and also featuring Daniel Evans as Ariel.

Ian McKellen, who two Septembers ago starred in a Broadway revival of Strindberg's The Dance of Death opposite Helen Mirren, returns to the play in Sean Mathias' production newly joined by Frances de la Tour and Owen Teale (opening at the Lyric, 4 March). The Royal Court premieres Hitchcock Blonde (2 April), a new play by Terry Johnson about a media lecturer and his protégé that can only be an improvement on his woeful West End version of The Graduate.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company add a third show to their long-running repertory at the Criterion this month when The Bible - The Complete Word of God (abridged) starts to play Thursday evenings from 16 January, alongside The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and The Complete History of America (Abridged) on other nights. Meanwhile the other RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company, briefly return to their former home at the Barbican to present the premiere of a new stage dramatisation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

On the fringe, Simon Callow makes a rare return to stage acting to star in Through the Leaves at the tiny Southwark Playhouse (from 7 January), Martin Sherman adapts EM Forster's A Passage to India for Shared Experience (at Riverside Studios from 22 January), and Daniela Nardini (best known from TV's This Life) stars as Camille at the Lyric Hammersmith in a new version by Neil Bartlett, directed by David McVicar (opening 11 March).

The Young Vic hosts the London debut of one of Japan's foremost young writer/director/actors, Hideki Noda, with his Red Demon (opening 3 February), which is followed by Langston Hughes’ musical comedy Simply Heavenly, starring Ruby Turner and the simply heavenly Clive Rowe (opening 12 March).

More Musicals

Another eagerly anticipated fringe musical outing is London's first full professional staging of Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' rarely seen 1964 Broadway flop, Anyone Can Whistle, already previewing at the Bridewell prior to opening this week (8 January), with a cast that includes Janie Dee.

Not so much a musical as a karaoke event, Sing-a-long-a-Abba Live in Concert invites the audience to, you guessed it, sing along to Abba songs to the accompaniment of a live band, transferring to the Whitehall from the Prince Charles Cinema from 9 January. More jukebox fare is on the way with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr concert tribute show The Rat Pack opening at the Haymarket (from 11 March) and Cliff - The Musical, celebrating the original Bachelor Boy Cliff Richard, at the Prince of Wales (from 12 March).

Meanwhile, former Tory politician Gyles Brandreth turns performer to Zipp! through 100 musicals in 90 minutes, including the complete works of Andrew Lloyd Webber in 60 seconds (padded out with Puccini), opening at the Duchess on 4 February. And finally, Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday is revived and expanded on its own as a vehicle for Denise Van Outen, but without the dance half that used to accompany it to comprise Song & Dance (opening at the Gielgud, 8 April).