Terry Grimley picks out some of the highlights of the spring theatre season.
Theatres, like everyone else, are undoubtedly steeling themselves for a challenging year in 2009. But the impact of what seems to be rapidly turning into the worst financial crisis since the invention of money has so far had little visible impact on their plans for the first half of the year.
Whether these straitened times mean death at the box office or a rush for escapist entertainment remains to be seen. But West Midlands theatre enthusiasts who can still muster a reasonable disposable income and a car – because, as usual, the otherwise difficult-to-access Malvern Festival Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre and RSC carve up a large number of the main attractions between themselves – will find themselves spoilt for choice.
Malvern boasts the cherry on the cake with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot starring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. The production from London’s Haymarket Theatre is boosting itself as the theatre event of the year, and it surely has a point.
Now almost 55 years old, Beckett’s surreal comedy about two Laurel & Hardy-like tramps stoically awaiting an audience with the mysterious Mr Godot was voted the most influential English-language play of the 20th century by a panel of theatre professionals
But fears of impenetrable existentialist gloom (it’s easy to forget that Waiting for Godot can be a very funny play) will surely be overcome by this dream casting of two stars who have previously gone head-to-head in the X-Men films.
Malvern has pulled off the remarkable coup of staging its premiere, and it will have an extended ten-night run at the Festival Theatre from March 5-14, then touring to Brighton, Bath, Norwich, Edinburgh and Newcastle before finally ending up in London.
Malvern leads the way, as the pantomime tinsel is packed away for another year, with the first of two Alan Ayckbourn productions it is staging this spring.
This is Tons of Money, Ayckbourn’s adaptation of the 1922 farce by Will Evans and Valentine which inaugurated the famous series of Aldwych farces. This revival features Caroline Langrishe, Christopher Timothy and Liz Fraser.
The second Ayckbourn play is his most recent, Life & Beth, in his own premiere production from Scarborough), featuring Liza Goddard as a woman coming to terms with the death of her domineering husband after 33 years of marriage (February 16-21).
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring production of Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, opens at Warwick Arts Centre on January 30 (until Feb 7). Birmingham actor Patrice Naiambana, who made his RSC debut as Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ten years ago and has more recently been an imposing Earl of Warwick in The Histories, plays the title role, with Natalia Tena, best known as Tonks in the Harry Potter films, as Desdemona.
There will be a chance to compare this with the year’s other much-publicised Othello, the Northern Broadsides/West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production starring Lenny Henry, when it comes to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from April 7-11.
The disturbances in Lozells in 2005 which followed unsubstantiated rape allegations on a local radio station, leading to the death of one man and the breakdown of relations between Asian and black communities, is the subject of These Four Streets, at Birmingham Rep’s studio, The Door, from February 12-28.
Commissioned by the Rep, the play has been written collaboratively by six young female writers – Naylah Ahmed, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Jennifer Farmer, Lorna French, Amber Lone and Cheryl Akila Payne. Plays written by committees haven’t always been the most successful, but this is evidently an important attempt to confront some uncomfortable truths about multicultural Birmingham.
In another attempt to come to theatrical terms with a distressing true story, the Rep hosts The Hounding of David Oluwale, an adaptation by Oladipo Agboluaje of Kester Aspden’s book about the persecution of a destitute Nigerian immigrant by Leeds police in the late 1960s. It runs from February 25-28.
The biggest spring event at the Rep, though, is a revival of Nicholas Wright’s two-part adaptation of His Dark Materials, the trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman, which was a huge hit when it was first staged at the National Theatre .
Another co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse, it is directed by the Rep’s artistic director Rachel Kavanaugh and runs from March 13 to April 11.
The relationship established between the RSC and Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre, which contributed Hamlet to the Complete Works festival in Stratford two years ago, continues with The Tempest. Directed by Janice Honeyman and featuring two of South Africa’s most celebrated actors in Antony Sher and John Kani, it was first seen in Cape Town and comes to Stratford from February 14 to March 14.
There are two more international co-productions at Warwick Arts Centre this spring. The Convict’s Opera (March 3-7) is a reworking by Stephen Jeffreys of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, set on a ship transporting convicts to Australia. This co-production between Out of Joint and Sydney Theatre Company is directed by Max Stafford-Clark.
Andromaque (May 6-9) is the play by Jean Racine, directed in French by Declan Donellan in a co-production between his company Cheek by Jowl, Theatre des Bouffes du Nord and Theatre du Nord, Lille.
Malvern regularly hosts productions from English Touring Theatre and Sir Peter Hall, and Where There’s a Will (February 24-28) combines both. This classic Georges Feydeau farce is Sir Peter’s second production for ETT following Uncle Vanya last year.
Some other likely highlights of the spring include Edward Fox and Claire Bloom in William Douglas Home’s comedy about the aristocracy at bay, Lloyd George Knew My Father (Malvern, February 9-14), and John Wilson’s rarely-revived play about the First World War, King and Country (Belgrade Theatre, March 10-14).