Judi Dench plays the matriarch in Peter Hall’s much-anticipated revival of the 1920s Broadway comedy, The Royal Family, which begins previews tonight at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, ahead of an opening night on 1 November 2001. Dench heads an all-star cast whose principals also includes Harriet Walter, Peter Bowles, Julia McKenzie, Toby Stephens and newcomer Emily Blunt.

Dench is Fanny Cavendish, the formidable figurehead of an unruly dynasty of actors and an old trouper determined to return herself to the stage. Walter plays Dench’s daughter, Julie Cavendish, Stephens is son Anthony and Blunt portrays granddaughter Gwen. Amongst the regular visitors to the Cavendishes’ New York household are Fanny’s brother Herbert Dean and his wife Kitty, played by Bowles and McKenzie.

The other company members are Philip Voss, Peter Blythe, Robert Petkoff, Joy Richardson, Richard Ryan, Penny Ryder, John Griffiths and Lois Charlton. Directed by Peter Hall, the production is designed by Anthony Ward with lighting by Jon Boswell.

The play dates back to the late 1920s, and was the result of a collaboration between writers George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Portraying the off-stage antics of an acting family, the narrative was undoubtedly a spoof of the legendary Barrymores, America's most famous theatrical clan. In fact the three Barrymore children (John, Lionel and Ethel) eclipsed even the success of their renowned parents.

The truth behind The Royal Family's inception is almost as dramatic as the action within the storyline. Ethel Barrymore herself was due to perform in the original production, but ended up taking legal action on realising the script's potential slight on her family name. A makeshift cast were later fired en masse in the second week of rehearsals, only to be rehired five days later. Under the direction of Broadway legend Jed Harris, the show opened to a muted reception in Atlantic City. But by the time it reached the Selwyn Theatre in New York on 28 December 1927, the critical acclaim was unanimous.

- by Terri Paddock