Theatregoers desperate to finally learn the subject of Mike Leigh’s first new stage play in 22 years will have to wait a little bit longer. The play - whose title, Two Thousand Years, was at last revealed via last Friday (See News, 2 Sep 2005) – has cancelled its first two previews this week at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. Performances will now begin this Saturday 10 September 2005 ahead of the press night, which remains 15 September.

A spokesman for the National Theatre told this morning: "The Thursday and Friday previews (8 and 9 September) have been cancelled. We are extremely sorry to the audiences involved, but we have scheduled two extra Sunday matinees to accommodate those people, on 23 October and 6 November 2005.” She explained the reason for the postponement is that “Mike Leigh felt he hasn't fully completed his process of creating his new play."

The extra performances will come as a relief to those worried about missing out completely. Last month, the National confirmed that, despite limits of a maximum of four tickets per customer, the entire repertory season to 31 January 2005 at the Cottesloe had already sold out – all 16,000 tickets – although 20 seats are being held back per performance for sale on the day.

Aside from last week’s name revelation, the National has stuck to a strict embargo for Two Thousand Years. We’re told, in fact, that no one except those actually in the company have a clue what it’s about. As per Leigh’s usual improvisational style, he and his eight-strong cast - John Burgess, Ben Caplan, Allan Corduner, Adam Godley, Caroline Gruber, Nitzan Sharron, Samantha Spiro and Alexis Zegerman – have been devising the piece and exploring character together in private since 25 April 2005. (The writer/director requires a minimum of 18 weeks’ rehearsal time.)

The secrecy has sparked off myriad rumours and predictions. Actress Miriam Margolyes, who auditioned for a part, told a newspaper it was about “being Jewish” while the poster image, a drooping palm tree in a desert, has had others guessing it may be an anti-war piece. When asked what content would be included in the (normally packed) NT programmes for Two Thousand Years, a show spokesperson told that it would probably only be biographies – though that couldn’t be confirmed due to the embargo.

Now best known for his films, including last year’s award-winning Vera Drake, this is Leigh’s first new stage play since 1993’s It’s a Great Big Shame at Theatre Royal Stratford East. His earlier plays include Babies Grow Old, Goosepimples and, of course, Abigail’s Party, while his other films include Naked, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing.

Theatregoers who booked for 8 or 9 September 2005 but are unable to exchange for one of the alternative Sunday matinee dates are being offered full refunds via the NT box office.

- by Terri Paddock