The National Theatre has today announced programme scheduling for its autumn season, running from September to November, which includes the eagerly anticipated pairing of Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter starring Alex Jennings, as well as the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse (See News, 15 Feb 2007).

In the Lyttelton

Present Laughter joins the rep in the 900-seat Lyttelton auditorium on 2 October 2007 (previews from 25 September). Set in the glamorous world of the theatre during the Jazz Age, the 1942 comedy is a portrait of the life that whirled round Noel Coward in his heyday. The playwright penned the play as a vehicle for his own talent, with a lead role that was dangerously close to being autobiographical.

Flamboyantly vain and devastatingly handsome, charismatic charmer Garry Essendine (Jennings) is about to set off on an extended tour of Africa, when he's visited by practically everyone he knows including his ex-wife/manager, lawyer, secretary, butler, business partners, an admiring young playwright and a recent one-night stand. The stage is set for a battle of glittering egos.

Jennings’ myriad NT credits include The Alchemist, Stuff Happens, His Girl Friday, The Relapse and Albert Speer, while he made his musical debut taking over as Henry Higgins in the NT’s production of My Fair Lady in the West End. His credits for the RSC and elsewhere include Hamlet, Peer Gynt Too Clever by Half, The Wild Duck, The Recruiting Officer, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Liar. The actor's raft of prizes include no fewer than three Laurence Olivier Awards (Best Comedy Performance for Too Clever by Half, Best Actor for Peer Gynt and Best Actor in a Musical for My Fair Lady) and an Evening Standard award for Best Actor (jointly for The Winter's Tale and The Relapse). He was recently seen on screen in The Queen.

Jennings is joined in the Present Laughter cast by Lisa Dillon (Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder), Sara Stewart (currently at the Royal Court in The Pain and the Itch) and Sarah Woodward (this year’s Lady Macbeth at the Open Air). The production is directed by NT associate director Howard Davies (whose multi award-winning production of Coward’s Private Lives with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan transferred from the West End to Broadway) and designed by Tim Hatley.

In the Olivier

The new schedule in the 1,100-seat Olivier opens with War Horse, the latest in the National’s now-annual tradition, à la His Dark Materials and Coram Boy, of an epic adaptation of a children’s book (See News, 20 Jul 2007). Michael Morpurgo, who was Children’s Laureate from 2003-05, is the author of over 100 books, including Private Peaceful and Why the Whales Came, which have already successfully crossed over to the stage.

At the outbreak of World War One, young Albert’s beloved horse Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before winding up in no man’s land. But Albert can’t forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he sets off to find him and bring him home.

Presented in association with South African puppet company Handspring, War Horse is adapted by Nick Stafford, co-directed by NT associate directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and designed by Rae Smith, with puppets by Adrian Kohler. The cast includes: Alice Barclay, Jason Barnett, Finn Caldwell, Paul Chequer, Thomas Goodridge, Gareth Kennerley, Craig Leo, Rachel Leonard, Tim Lewis, Tommy Luther, Mervyn Millar, Emily Mytton, Toby Olie, Toby Sedgwick (Ted Narracott), Ashley Taylor-Rhys, Luke Treadaway (Albert Narracott), Alan Williams and Angus Wright (Captain Nicholls).

War Horse opens on 17 October 2007 (previews from 8 October). From 18 December (previews from 10 December), it’s joined in the NT Olivier repertory by Much Ado About Nothing, which is directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner as the first of three annual productions in the new “Shell Series: Classic Drama at the National Theatre”.

In Shakespeare’s comedy, wealthy young Hero and dashing soldier-boy Claudio rush into marriage, but there’s no such hurry for seasoned singles Beatrice and Benedick, whose verbal sparring provoke their scheming friends to plot a happy ending.

Zoe Wanamaker’s NT credits include His Girl Friday, Battle Royal, The Crucible and, currently in the Olivier, The Rose Tattoo. Her other theatre work includes Electra (Donmar and New York), for which she won the Best Actress Olivier, and last year on Broadway, Awake and Sing!, for which she was Tony-nominated. Her screen credits include My Family, Gormenghast, Doctor Who and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Simon Russell Beale’s many NT credits include The Alchemist, The Life of Galileo, Volpone, Jumpers, Candide and Hamlet (Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards). His other credits include, at the Donmar Warehouse, The Philanthropist (Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards), and Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night (Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards). He’s just finished reprising his Broadway performance as King Arthur in the West End production of Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Also confirmed for the Much Ado About Nothing is Susannah Fielding (currently playing Wanamaker’s daughter in The Rose Tattoo), who will play Hero. The production is designed by Vicki Mortimer.

In the Cottesloe

And finally, in the 400-seat Cottesloe, Mark Ravenhill’s Citizenship and Enda Walsh’s Chatroom will return, from 1 to 19 September 2007 only, ahead of a regional tour (See News, 15 Feb 2007). First seen in 2004 as part of the week-long Shell Connections season celebrating theatre for young people, the short plays – then paired with Deborah Gearing’s Burn - were given full productions in the Cottesloe last March (See News, 20 Dec 2005).

The plays deal with the “drama of teenagers’ lives” and, according to promotional material, are “intensely alive to the possibilities and pressures faced on the verge of adulthood”. Walsh’s Chatroom centres on six rebellious 15-year-olds in cyberspace. And Ravenhill’s Citizenship follows a boy’s frank and messy search to discover his sexual identity. Each play runs for approximately 50 minutes.

The cast – directed again by Anna Mackmin, whose production of David Storey’s In Celebration starring Orlando Bloom is currently at the West End’s Duke of York’s - comprises Jamie Barbakoff, Sophie Benjamin, Calum Callaghan, Richard Dempsey, Simone James, Akemnji Ndifornyen, Anna Nightingale, George Rainsford, Joy Richardson, Ashley Rolfe, Michelle Tate, Steven Webb and Jade Williams. The production is designed by Jonathan Fensom.

Following London, Chatroom and Citizenship will continue to Mold, Leeds, Manchester, Coventry, Cardiff, Oxford, Brighton and Cambridge, where the UK tour concludes on 17 November ahead of a visit to the Hong Kong Festival in February 2008.

- by Terri Paddock