West End diva Joanna Riding (pictured) will return to straight theatre and Manchester's Royal Exchange this winter to star a revival of John Dighton's The Happiest Days of Your Life. The new main house production, directed by joint artistic director Braham Murray, runs from 8 December 2003 to 17 January 2004 (previews from 3 December).

Following her Olivier Award-winning West End run as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Riding took a break from musicals this past summer, receiving critical acclaim playing opposite Cold Feet's John Thomson in Murray's Exchange revival of Harold Brighouse's 1915 comedy Hobson's Choice (See News, 18 Feb 2003).

Another comedy, The Happiest Days of Your Life is set in the summer of 1945 at a Hampshire boys' boarding school, which has just resumed classes after a lengthy wartime evacuation. Chaos comes when a government directive results in the staff and pupils of a girls' school being billeted onto them.

First performed in the West End in 1948, the stage play became a 1950 Ealing Studio film classic, starring Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford as the battling heads (played by Philip Madoc and Janet Henfrey in the new Exchange production). Riding will play the scene-stealing part of sports mistress Miss Gossage, immortalised by Joyce Grenfell in the screen version.

Riding is one of the West End's leading musical theatre actresses. In addition to My Fair Lady, for which she won her second Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical (See News, 14 Feb 2003), her credits include Me and My Girl, Lady Be Good, The Witches of Eastwick, Carousel (for which she won her first Best Actress in a Musical Olivier in 1993) and Guys and Dolls (for which she was Olivier-nominated in 1997).

The Happiest Days of Your Life is designed by Simon Higlett, with lighting by Richard Owen and sound by Steve Brown.


In other regional casting updates, Patrice Naiambana has left Nottingham Playhouse's imminent production of Othello due to "irreconcilable differences". He's been replaced in the title role by Leo Wringer, who's previously played Othello in Edward Hall's 1995 production at Newbury's Watermill Theatre. More recently, Wringer has been seen on stage in Medea (West End), Sanctuary (National) and The Comedy of Errors (RSC), and on screen in Canterbury Tales.

Nottingham artistic director Giles Croft and chief executive Stephanie Sirr issued a joint statement about the change, saying: "We are extremely fortunate to have secured the services of Leo Wringer, a very fine actor, to take on the role of Othello at short notice. We have a wonderful acting ensemble, a superb set and with Leo at the helm we are confident that the production will be very exciting."

As a result of the swap, the preview performance scheduled for this Friday 31 October 2003 has been cancelled. Othellowill now run from 1 to 22 November.

- by Terri Paddock