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The shocking news at the weekend of Whitney Houston's death in a Los Angeles hotel bedroom will probably give a macabre boost to the proposed new stage musical version of The Bodyguard later this year.

There will be something of Ghost about the reproduction of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" on the soundtrack, as if Whitney was singing to us from beyond the grave.

Like the Michael Jackson tribute show Thriller, still running on Shaftesbury Avenue, an infusion of black soul music will carry a very welcome, if ethereal, un-British quality into theatreland.

For nothing thing could more vividly illustrate the deep political and cultural affiliation between the mostly Caucasian, middle-class Home Counties and the popular West End -- saving Sonia Friedman's presence -- than the current and future programmes in Guildford and Chichester.

Chichester Festival Theatre is fifty years old, and its anniversary this year is celebrated with another extraordinary, appealing and commercially minded season on the South Downs starting in April, with Penelope Keith as Lady Wishfort (with a face "like an old peel'd wall") in The Way of the World; a new Hugh Whitemore play about the Suez Crisis; Trevor Nunn's production of Kiss Me Kate; and Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover in Shaw's Chekhovian masterpiece, Heartbreak House.

Kim Cattrall's popping by, too, to reprise the sexy Cleopatra she played in Liverpool last year, though Jeffery Kissoon has been replaced by Michael Pennington as Antony (Pennington's new book about Shakespeare, incidentally, Sweet William, looks a must-read zinger).

And that's just the main stage. In the Minerva, Roger Allam is giving his Uncle Vanya; Angus Jackson directs Canvas, a new play by Michael Wynne, who won an Olivier award for his critically underrated The Priory at the Royal Court; Henry Goodman plays Brecht's Arturo Ui (artistic director Jonathan Church's only production in the season); Alan Ayckbourn directs his own 1972 classic Absurd Person Singular; and Jonathan Kent directs Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

You could bet on at least five of those shows coming into town to join the acclaimed Sweeney Todd (at the Adelphi next month) from last season, as well as Church's feel-good hit, Singin' in the Rain, which bows at the Palace on Wednesday; I've already seen potential punters dancing along the kerbs around Cambridge Circus, buoyed up by the sight of a cascade of coloured brollies on the Palace frontage.

Yet another Chichester transfer has been announced in the arrival of David Hare's South Downs paired with Rattigan's The Browning Version at the Harold Comedy in late April after the all-too-brief sojourn there of Ayckbourn's Absent Friends. (How does anyone make money in the West End, let alone cover their costs, if actors only sign up for three month contracts?)

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford will be celebrating its fiftieth in three years time; it's quite amazing how this cosy venue on the river has maintained its liveliness, and  its admittedly over-age audience, over the years.

I popped down for the Saturday matinee of the touring production of The King's Speech -- rumoured to be landing at Wyndham's in the West End after Jackie Mason (who opens there tonight) goes -- and the place was packed: the restaurant, the bars, the disabled toilets...

The theatre's director Jamie Barber was on hand to welcome his mother, veteran producer Duncan Weldon -- who is already hoping he might move the Chichester Heartbreak House with Jacobi into the West End -- and Fiery Angel producer, Ed Snape, who presented Charles Edwards (the stuttering Bertie in The King's Speech) in his breakthrough performance as pipe-sucking Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps.

Guildford doesn't have the high profile output of Chichester, but it's quietly steaming along just behind the West End -- offering touring dates this season to Terence Rattigan's Less Than Kind from the Jermyn Street Theatre and Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi in Bette and Joan from the Arts; and mounting a revival in March of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park starring Maureen Lipman.

Even more intriguingly, perhaps, there's a revival in April of Ray Cooney's Westminster sex farce Two Into One, featuring Gyles Brandreth in the Donald Sinden role of Dick Willey MP, Denise van Outen as a gorgeously available secretary, Christopher Biggins as Willey's right hand (the brilliant Michael Williams role) and Brian Murphy as the apoplectic hotel manager ("There's far too much sex going on in this hotel, and I'm not having any of it!"), originally played by an empurpled Lionel Jeffries.

All this is a far cry from Friday's night's high-end and deeply serious opening at the ENO of Richard Jones' extraordinary revival of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, based on three fantastical stories by the German Romantic writer ETA Hoffman.

The American soprano Georgia Jarman sang all four heroines, while bass baritone Clive Bayley sang all four villains, with pint-sized tenor Barry Banks -- he'd make a good trio of tiny ENO favourites with Alfie Boe and Bonaventuro Bottone -- in the title role.

As the tales are those told not by an idiot but by a drunken poet, the piece comes with a license to elaborate and re-interpret even more pronounced than usual in the repertoire, and Jones and his designer, Giles Cadle, need no second bidding.

They fill the stage with amazing, dream-like visions, not least in the encounters with the mechanical doll, Olympia, and the scheming prostitute, Giulietta, here made up to resemble another self-destructive diva in the Whitney Houston class, Amy Winehouse.

We all know the wonderful, languorous barcarolle that opens the fourth act, but the whole score is a fascinating treasure trove, much different from, and more complex than, Offenbach in his opera-bouffes mode, as in La belle Helene, La vie parisienne or (my favourite) La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. An astonishing and enthralling evening: the most exciting productions these days are invariably at the Young Vic -- and the ENO.


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