Michael Gambon (pictured) is set to play poet W H Auden opposite Alex Jennings as composer Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's long-rumoured new play for the National Theatre (See {The Goss::E8821226418520}, 10 Nov 2008), provisionally titled The Habit of Art. Frances de la Tour and Adrian Scarborough are also attached to the production, which is due to open at the NT Lyttelton in November.

The play, which is directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, centres on an imagined meeting between former friends Auden and Britten during their twilight years, when the poet was living in Oxford during the early 1960s. The two had collaborated earlier in their lives on works including the acclaimed poetic documentary Night Mail and the operetta Paul Bunyan, but drifted apart after a falling out in the mid 1940s.

Bennett's last play for the NT, the award-winning The History Boys, proved a huge success both critically and commercially when it opened in 2004, subsequently transferring to the West End, Broadway, and the big screen (See News, 27 Jul 2005). His other works include the Talking Heads series, Habeas Corpus, The Madness of George III and Enjoy, currently being revived in the West End.

Michael Gambon has a long association with the National - he was a member of the 1963 inaugural season under the directorship of Laurence Oliver at the Old Vic. His latest appearance with the company was in 2005 when he played Falstaff in Nicholas Hytner's productions of Henry IV Parts One and Two in the Olivier. Last year he was in the West End starring as Hirst in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (See News, 8 Sep 2008).

Alex Jennings' myriad NT credits include Present Laughter, The Alchemist, Stuff Happens, His Girl Friday, The Relapse and Albert Speer, while Olivier award-winner Frances de la Tour was a member of the original History Boys cast. She also appeared in the film, alongside Adrian Scarborough who is also attached to The Habit of Art.


In other play casting news, at the Hampstead Theatre Helen Baxendale will join Emma Cunniffe, James Dreyfus, Aden Gillett and Vicki Pepperdine in April De Angelis' new comedy Amongst Friends, which runs from 26 May to 13 June 2009 (previews from 21 May), directed by Anthony Clark.

Amongst Friends focuses on journalist Lara (Baxendale) and her ex-MP and crime writer husband Richard (Gillett) who are happily living in a fashionable 'gated community'. They invite their old neighbours Caitlin (Cunniffe) and Joe (Dreyfus) to dinner, but when the security system fails an uninvited guest (Pepperdine) descends and the dinner party takes a different turn.

Baxendale, who is best known for TV roles including Cold Feet, Cardiac Arrest and Friends, was last on stage in Swimming with Sharks with Christian Slater at the Vaudeville Theatre. Amongst Friends marks her third role at Hampstead, following Morning and Evening and Bearing Fruit.


Finally, at the Bush Theatre, David Bark-Jones, Susan Brown, Robin Soans, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Stephanie Street star in a double bill of plays “from the frontline of climate change” titled The Contingency Plan, which runs from 22 April to 6 June and comprises On the Beach and Resilience, both by Steve Waters.

Also at the Bush, casting has been announced for the premiere production of Alexi Kaye Campbell's new play Apologia. Tom Beard, Paola Dionisetti, Sarah Goldberg, John Light, Nina Sosanya and Philip Voss will star, with Bush artistic director Josie Rourke directing. It opens on 22 June (previews from 17 June), playing until 18 July.

- by Theo Bosanquet