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Looking Ahead: Theatre Highlights for 2004

Will it be a happy new year for theatregoers? Contributing editor Mark Shenton looks forward to several new London musicals, including the arrival (at last) of The Producers, a new Andrew Lloyd Webber & the stage adaptation of Mary Poppins.

By • West End


The West End is promising everything from Mariah Carey and Judi Dench to Mary Poppins and The Producers this year. As usual, Whatsonstage.com will be reviewing all the shows as they open, interviewing the stars and reporting the news as it happens - but here’s a snapshot look in advance.

Though 2003 had the ground-breaking Jerry Springer - the Opera, it was also overrun with compilation musicals Cliff - the Musical (cataloguing the hits of Cliff Richard), Tonight’s the Night (Rod Stewart) and The Rat Pack - Live from Las Vegas (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin), not to mention Zipp!, a compilation of musicals themselves. After those mostly meagre pickings, it’s a relief to already have at least three potential blockbusters on the musical front to look forward to in 2004.

Mackintosh & Lloyd Webber head-to-head

Those of a competitive nature will be particularly intrigued by the spectacle of former producing partners, Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber (pictured at a Phantom birthday celebration), going head-to-head with rival projects.

Mackintosh offers the long-anticipated stage version of Mary Poppins, co-produced with Disney, from whose film version the famous Sherman Brothers songs will be augmented by new ones from British duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (whose work will also be heard earlier in the summer at Chichester Festival Theatre with a new production there of their Just So musical). Directed by former National Theatre supremo Richard Eyre and starring Laura-Michelle Kelly in the title role, it will open at the Prince Edward Theatre on 15 December, following a Bristol Hippodrome try-out from 15 September.

Meanwhile Lloyd Webber has written a new show, The Woman in White (not to be confused with the still-running thriller The Woman in Black), based on the Victorian mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, that will open at the Palace Theatre in September. Trevor Nunn - who directed such previous Lloyd Webbers as Cats, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard - will stage the show that has lyrics by Broadway's David Zippel (City of Angels) and a book by young English playwright Charlotte Jones (Humble Boy and the upcoming The Dark, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse on 23 March).

Record-breaking & setting

‘New’ from Broadway - or at least three years since it swept its way to a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards and a record-setting top ticket price of $480 there - the stage version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers finally arrives at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (opening 9 November). While the Broadway production quickly lost its lustre after the departure of original stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (who’ve just returned to it for a three-month stint), it will here star Richard Dreyfuss (previously seen on the London stage in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue) and British comic Lee Evans (who will first also star in a new production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, opposite the great Michael Gambon, opening at the Albery Theatre on 10 March).

Another Broadway musical making a belated London appearance is Victor/Victoria, based on the Julie Andrews film that also starred her on stage in New York. Here it will be seen in a rather more modest fringe production at the tiny Bridewell Theatre this month, starring Ria Jones (opening 13 January). And also from screen-to-stage, Jailhouse Rock, a musical based on the Elvis Presley film, comes to the West End’s Piccadilly, opening 19 April, following regional try-outs in Plymouth and Manchester. It’s directed by Rob Bettinson and adapted by him and Alan Janes (a team previously responsible for the long-running Buddy and the rather shorter-lived 125th Street).

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance joins another tale of pirate adventure, Peter Pan, in rep at the Savoy, opening 8 January in a new production by Steven Dexter for producer Raymond Gubbay with Anthony Head as the Pirate King and Kathryn Evans as Ruth. Then, from April, Gubbay launches Savoy Opera at this address as London’s third permanent (but unsubsidised) opera company. With Steven Pimlott, David Parry and Sarah Playfair as artistic directors, a repertory of popular operas, sung in English, will be presented, starting with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with Bizet’s Carmen, Donizetti's L’Elisir d’Amore, Verdi’s La Traviata, Offenbach’s La Belle Helene and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to follow before Christmas. Stratford East’s Theatre Royal premiere a new Ska musical, The Big Life, from 17 April; while Nitro premiere a new hip-hop musical, Slamdunk, on a national tour that kicks off at Manchester’s Contact Theatre from 6 February and arrives in the London area at Hackney Empire from 20 April to 1 May. And at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, this year’s summer musical is a revival of the Lerner/Loewe classic Camelot, opening in July.

Less Miserables, more Donovan & Webb

In order to make way for The Woman in White, Cameron Mackintosh’s 18-plus year occupation of the Palace Theatre with Les Miserables comes to an end on 27 March. The show doesn’t close: it merely moves to the Queen’s, where it re-opens in April in somewhat smaller confines. Meanwhile, Jason Donovan returns to the scene of his greatest triumph, the London Palladium (where he took the title role of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991) to star as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a five-week stint from 12 January.

And Marti Webb, too, relives one of her greatest triumphs - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s solo song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday - that she first created in a TV version in 1980 and subsequently on stage at the Palace Theatre in 1982, where it was paired with the danced Variations as half of a double bill called Song and Dance. Now Webb, whose musical career began in 1961 in the original production of Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, returns to the piece, taking over from Denise Van Outen at the Gielgud Theatre, for the show’s final West End weeks from 13 January.

On the non-musical front, other stars heading to the West End include Beverley Hills 90210’s Luke Perry, appearing with American Pie’s Alyson Hannigan in a stage version of the hit film When Harry Met Sally, opening at the Haymarket on 20 February directed by Loveday Ingram and with music by Jamie and Ben Cullum. Mariah Carey, Calista Flockhart and Jake Gyllenhaal are all due to head this way, too, in new productions respectively of Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There will also, no doubt, be a West End berth for the stage return of Diana Rigg in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer that will premiere at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre from 17 February prior to a national tour.

The West End also goes Round the Horne as two episodes from the cult 1960s radio series are presented live at The Venue (opening 22 January), in a production first seen at the fringe White Bear Theatre last October, and there’s an anniversary production - exactly 75 years since it premiered at the Savoy in 1929 - of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, set in the trenches of the First World War, opening at the Comedy Theatre on 21 January.

RSC in London & Stratford-upon-Avon

With an announcement of a permanent London home due imminently, the Royal Shakespeare Company sets up side-by-side on Shaftesbury Avenue with the transfers from Stratford-upon-Avon of Judi Dench in All’s Well That Ends Well (at the Gielgud Theatre from 18 February) and an already-acclaimed double bill of The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed (at the Queen’s from 14 January), with a company led by Jasper Britton and Alexandra Gilbreath, all of them under the direction of Gregory Doran.

Meanwhile, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Doran will direct South African actor Sello Maake ka Ncube in the title role of Othello, with Antony Sher as Iago and Lisa Dillon as Desdemona, before a core ensemble of RSC actors perform four tragedies, including Greg Hicks as Macbeth, Toby Stephens as Hamlet, a new Peter Gill production of Romeo and Juliet, and Corin Regrave as King Lear, while a season of neglected Spanish Golden Age plays, curated by Laurence Boswell, will be performed in the Swan. There will also be a new work festival, including new plays by Joanna Laurens and Zinnie Harris.

National tenners & Barbican BITE(s)

At the National, the return of the Travelex £10 season in the Olivier Theatre from April kicks off with Stephen Rea in the title role of a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Before that, a new play by David Hare about the state of the British railways, The Permanent Way, arrives at the Cottesloe as part of an Out of Joint tour, opening 13 January, while another Cottesloe hit, Michael Frayn’s Democracy, moves first to the larger Lyttelton (from 12 February) and then on to the West End’s Wyndham’s (from early April).

At the Barbican, BITE:04 promises its first production to be created and premiered there, as opposed to the visiting companies it usually hosts, when Robert Wilson directs The Black Rider, with songs by Tom Waits and text by William Burroughs, from 17 May. “Until now,” says the Barbican’s head of theatre Louise Jeffreys, “BITE has brought the world to London, now we take a production out into the world.” After its UK season, it will go on to San Francisco and Sydney. Before that, BITE continues to bring world theatre, dance, music and puppets to London, including Mikhail Baryshnikov in his new solo show, Solos with Piano or Not? (17-22 February), the Tsilisi Marionette Theatre (9-20 March) and Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes with Provenance (28 April-15 May), and two new political plays by British playwright David Edgar, presented under the umbrella title Continental Divide in a co-production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (29 March to 4 April).

Other seasons

At the Almeida, Jonathan Pryce, Mathew Marsh and Kate Fahy star in the British premiere of Edward Albee’s The Goat, about a man who falls in love with one, opening on 3 February, and then Rufus Norris directs a new stage adaptation of the Danish film Festen (opening 25 March). At the Donmar Warehouse, new plays by Steve Waters (World Music, opening 16 February) and Charlotte Jones (The Dark, opening 23 March) are followed by former Almeida supremo Ian McDiarmid starring in a new production of Pirandello’s Henry IV (in a new version by Tom Stoppard, opening 4 May).

At the Royal Court, the main house has new plays by Richard Bean (Honeymoon Suite, opening 12 January) and actor-turned-playwright Lennie James (The Sons of Charlie Paora, opening 26 February), while the Theatre Upstairs has a double bill of new plays by Brazilian playwright Marcos Barbosa (Almost Nothing and At the Table, opening 9 February) and a third new play to be presented here by Vassily Sigarev (Ladybird, opening 8 March). At the Bush, there are two new plays by Simon Stephens, Christmas (opening 9 January) is followed by One Minute (opening 6 February), before the return of Georgia Fitch’s Adrenalin…Heart (opening March).

At the Young Vic, the final season in the ‘old’ Young Vic before it closes for an extensive refurbishment kicks off with artistic director David Lan’s new production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (opening 4 March), before Kerry Fox stars in a new play by Martin Crimp, Cruel and Tender, opening 13 May under the direction of Luc Bondy. In the Studio, there’s a revival of Joe Penhall’s Some Voices (opening 17 March).

Kilburn’s Tricycle has two productions from the Oxford Stage Company lined up: Sean Holmes directs a new production of Peter Flannery’s Singer (from 10 March), and then Kathy Burke directs a revival of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow (from 13 April). At Hampstead, a new play by Hanif Kureishi, When the Night Begins, premieres on 16 March, before the theatre hosts the latest political satire by Alistair Beaton, Follow My Leader, who previously provided it with a hit in Feelgood that subsequently transferred to the West End.

At the Lyric Hammersmith, Tamasha Theatre Company follow up its success there with Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral in 2001 with Strictly Dandia (opening 20 January), then artistic director Neil Bartlett adapts and directs a new version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist (opening 25 February, and touring after its run here), before what are being billed as the last-ever London performances of the Olivier Award winning ‘junk opera’, Shockheaded Peter (from 8 to 24 April).

Theatrical returns

Finally, there are hugely welcome returns for three London theatres: Hackney Empire re-opens its refurbished doors from 22 January; English National Opera comes home to the restored London Coliseum from 7 February; and Wimbledon Theatre is back, under the new management of the Ambassador Theatre Group, from 10 February.


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