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Autumn theatre: six degrees of separation

Published 12 September 2011

After the lull of the summer and the exodus to Edinburgh and back, London has recharged its batteries and readied itself for what is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year.

So what’s on, I hear you cry? Well, we’re about to tell you. But not in the manner of a straight-forward, easy-to-digest list, because that would be boring (and we’ve done it before). No, this autumn Official London Theatre takes you on a tenuous trip through theatre’s tastiest titbits. Prepare to be amazed, a little educated (and somewhat bewildered).

Cool Hand Luke / Aldwych theatre / from 23 Sep

We begin, for no particular reason, with Cool Hand Luke, a new stage version of Donn Pearce’s novel, best known for its 1967 film version starring Paul Newman. In this new production, Marc Warren plays the World War II veteran, convict and rebel who refuses to be broken by the system.

Tenuous link: Warren is probably best known for Hustle, a television series about a group of con-artists… and conning the elderly Mrs Wilberforce is what happens in The Ladykillers.

The Ladykillers / Gielgud theatre / from 26 Nov

This classic Ealing comedy about a group of criminals planning a heist is revived in the West End by director Sean Foley and a cast of comic gold which includes Peter Capaldi, James Fleet and Ben Miller.

Tenuous link: The 1955 film version of The Ladykillers featured Alec Guinness, whose final West End stage performance was at the Comedy theatre… which has just been renamed the Harold Pinter theatre. Pinter was a mentor to Ariel Dorfman, whose play Death And The Maiden is the first production to be staged in the renamed venue.

Death And The Maiden / Harold Pinter theatre / from 13 Oct

Hollywood star Thandie Newton takes to the London stage in Dorfman’s Olivier-winning 1991 play. She plays a former political prisoner who, years after being tortured at the hands of a faceless captor, struggles to find reconciliation as she turns the tables on the man she believes to be her oppressor. 

Tenuous link: Newton is best known for her film work, including Run Fat Boy Run which was directed by David Schwimmer. The former Friends actor appeared on the London stage in 2005 in Some Girls, written by Neil LaBute, whose new play opens at the Almeida theatre this autumn.

Reasons To Be Pretty / Almeida theatre / 10 Oct

Reasons To Be Pretty is LaBute’s third in a trilogy of plays about physical appearance. With a no doubt hefty dose of his bitingly acerbic wit, the play examines whether it is as much of a curse to be conventionally attractive as it is to be considered ugly. Tom Burke and Billie Piper star.

Tenuous link: Billie Piper is well known for starring alongside David Tennant in Doctor Who. Tennant caused a ticketing rush when he played the title role of Hamlet for the RSC, though a back injury forced him to drop out when the show transferred to London. The RSC’s latest transfer is Matilda The Musical…

Matilda The Musical / Cambridge theatre / from 18 Oct

Australian comic and musician Tim Minchin has written the score, playwright Dennis Kelly adapted the story and Matthew Warchus directs; it’s as good a start as any production could hope for, and when you have the storytelling genius of Roald Dahl to base it all on, it’s no wonder Matilda The Musical is one of the most anticipated shows of the autumn.

Tenuous link: In the original Roald Dahl book, a young boy is ordered to eat an enormous chocolate cake, something Francis Henshall in One Man, Two Guvnors would just love to do…

One Man, Two Guvnors / Adelphi theatre / from 8 Nov

Richard Bean’s 1960s-set version of an Italian classic has already been a massive hit at the National Theatre, and now West End audiences have the chance to see Corden playing a food-loving chancer who, always looking for his next meal ticket, ends up being minder to two guvnors. With murder and money in the mix, mayhem swiftly ensues.

Tenuous link: James Corden’s last appearance at the National Theatre was in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys… along with Andrew Knott, who is now starring as John Lennon in Backbeat.

Backbeat / Duke of York’s theatre / from 24 Sep

Based on the 1994 film, Backbeat tells the story of the emergence of probably the most famous band in the world, The Beatles. As it follows the band from Liverpool to Hamburg’s insalubrious red light district, the musical reveals the relationship between Lennon, his best friend and the band’s original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and German photographer Astrid Kirchherr.

Tenuous link: The Beatles were once interviewed by David Frost… who was played by Michael Sheen in hit play and film Frost/Nixon. Back on the London stage, Sheen is playing Hamlet at the Young Vic this autumn.

Hamlet / Young Vic / from 28 Oct

Sheen is known for his portrayals of well-known figures such as Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams and Brian Clough. But can he make Hamlet his own? The Young Vic gives Sheen the chance to shine in one of the biggest roles in theatre.

Tenuous link: Sheen starred as former PM Blair in film The Queen. Queen Elizabeth II is related by marriage to Wallis Simpson, whose last weeks are dramatised in Nicholas Wright’s new play at the Hampstead…

The Last Of The Duchess / Hampstead / from 20 Sep

Utilising the formidable talents of actresses Sheila Hancock and Anna Chancellor and director Richard Eyre, Wright’s play tells the story of a writer who comes to the Paris home of the Duchess of Windsor to conduct an interview, and finds herself in a household fraught with suppressed tensions.

Tenuous link: The Last Of The Duchess plays at Hampstead theatre, which recently staged Mike Leigh’s first ever revival of one of his own plays, Ecstasy. The acclaimed director is now creating a new play at the National Theatre.

Grief / National Theatre / from 14 Sep

True to Leigh’s renowned theatre-making process, Grief sees the director working with his company of actors – which includes his regular collaborator Lesley Manville – to create a new piece. While this means details are scant, it only serves to make his autumn 2011 offering even more anticipated by theatregoers.

Tenuous link: The National Theatre is, of course, no stranger to hit plays. One such drama, The Pitmen Painters, received its London premiere at the NT before heading off on tour and to Broadway. Next month it finally comes to the West End.

The Pitmen Painters / Duchess theatre / from 5 Oct

By Lee Hall – best known for writing the story of Billy Elliot – The Pitmen Painters is based on the book by William Feaver about a group of miners who, inspired by an art appreciation evening class, started to paint. Within a few years their work was sought after by collectors, and yet they continued to work down the mine.

Tenuous link: Another play about the process of making art is John Logan’s Tony-winning play Red, which starred Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar. He returns to the venue this autumn in Richard II.

Richard II / Donmar Warehouse / from 1 Dec

It’s an exciting prospect: two of Britain’s rising young stars – Redmayne is joined by Andrew Buchan as Bolingbroke – appearing in a Shakespeare history play in Michael Grandage’s final production as Artistic Director of theatrical powerhouse the Donmar Warehouse. If you haven’t booked already, be prepared to queue for day seats.

Tenuous link: At the end of Richard II, Bolingbroke – now King Henry IV – states his intention to go to Jerusalem, which is the name of Jez Butterworth’s Tony and Olivier-winning play, now returning to the West End.

Jerusalem / Apollo theatre / from 8 Oct

Amid the rich pickings of this autumn, Jerusalem is a must-see for anyone who didn’t catch it last time around (or even for those who did). Mark Rylance reprises his Olivier and Tony-winning performance as Johnny Byron, a local waster who lives an anarchic life in a caravan on the outskirts of a rural English town.

Tenuous link: In one memorable scene, we watch Byron create his own personal hangover cure – a cocktail of milk, vodka and raw egg – and swallow it in one… Swallow is the name of one of the boats in Swallows And Amazons, which is now coming to the West End.

Swallows And Amazons / Vaudeville / 15 Dec

A must for children with their heads in the clouds (and adults for that matter), Arthur Ransome’s classic tale of childhood adventure in the Lake District is brought to the stage by director Tom Morris and features music by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.

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