n August 2005, the West End was treated to one of those regrettably never-to-be-forgotten events. In the Duchess Theatre, off the Strand, there was the world premiere of a show that – deep down – longed to be put out of its misery, and very soon would be.
Behind the Iron Mask was a fanfared, abnormally dismal musical about the man who, back in the era of The Three Musketeers, became a legend for his style in metallic face-coverings. The show was palpably losing the will to live even before it had reached the interval. I joked to a friend, as we took in the air in the street outside, that it would set a piquant precedent if Behind the Iron Mask opened – and closed – on press night. It didn’t, to be exact – but its demise came hard on the heels of the “festivities” at the front.
Cut to 15 December 2020. In the Noel Coward Theatre on St Martin’s Lane, a theatre-starved public and a gang of tough-nut critics had assembled and were queuing round the block to breathe the same air as The Comeback, a show from Sonia Friedman Productions that had been touted as the bright spark signalling the end of almost nine months of coronavirus lockdown misery.
The occasion was the opposite of the Behind the Iron Mask fiasco. The show – a wily, joyous meta-comedy caper about vaudeville double-acts, performed with fleet-footed finesse by the Pin duo – juddered with the will to live. But we knew in advance that it was destined to close as soon as it had drawn its first breath and that the production would be put on ice once the initial ovations were over. There had been a rushed-sounding announcement that at midnight, the third lockdown would begin.
The title drops a light-heartedly pointed clue that The Comeback will resume its run at the Noel Coward now that spring has sprung and theatres are opening again. So my recommendations begin with that in the list of shows to plump for as live theatre gets back into gear. The current atmosphere combines the sensations of a thaw with the sense of duty about maintaining the etiquette of social-distancing and mask-wearing. It’s a rigmarole that has serious implications for the viability of theatre, with regard to reduced seating capacity and the consequent lost revenue.
In this bracket of shows that left an irresistible calling card before the virus waved a wand over London’s theatres and arrested them in a Sleeping Beauty-like state of suspended animation, pride of place also goes to Patrick Marber’s production of Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s latest masterpiece, which resumes operations at Wyndham’s Theatre on 7 August.
At the same time, with the upcoming season of brand-new productions, the industry is sending out a message of hope and resolve that should, by rights, be a rallying call. With luck, it will put droves of thoughtful bums on those more widely spaced seats. The exchange of body warmth between performers and audience is a distinctive feature of theatre that has been keenly missed though the months of dearth. For folk who want to get a fix of that, there is a host of less restricted but cautiously curated outdoor events.
So, without further ado, here are the upcoming shows that make my mouth water most. They are not arranged in alphabetical or chronological order but in an associative sequence that sprang to mind as I looked forward to the new season.
Hamlet (Theatre Royal, Windsor; 21 June-4 September)
Shakespeare’s protagonist, an inexhaustibly subtle young ponderer, is played for the second time in his career by Ian McKellen, who turns 82 next month. Sean Mathias launches his artistic directorship of this venue with a double whammy. In September, the same company will bring to life a new translation of The Cherry Orchard (10 September-23 October).
Hamlet (Young Vic, London; 22 September–13 November)
Cush Jumbo, who was electrifying as Mark Antony in the all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, gives us her distinctive angle on the Black Prince.
Cinderella the Musical (Gillian Lynne Theatre, London; performances begin 25 June)
Starring Carrie Hope Fletcher in the title role, this is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first new musical in the wake of a pandemic that, for financial reasons, has meant that the orchestral forces have had to be significantly reduced at the blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera.
Frozen (newly refurbished Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London; performances begin 8 September)
The other big hitter on the musicals front is this theatrical reimagining of Disney’s hugely popular animated film. Michael Grandage’s show opened on Broadway in March 2018. It set box office records and was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The virus has put this West End transfer on ice for quite a while, but what show could be better calculated to acclimatise itself to that condition? It opens on 8 September 2021, with previews from 27 August, and it’s currently booking to 3 April 2022.
Aficionados of the musical genre will also rejoice to note that slated for the upcoming season are powerfully marshalled revivals of such classics as South Pacific (at Chichester Festival Theatre), Carousel (at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park) and Anything Goes at the Barbican Centre, where this Cole Porter/PG Wodehouse delight sets sail with Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal and Megan (Will & Grace) Mullally aboard.
The Death of a Black Man (Hampstead Theatre, London; 28 May-10 July)
Alfred Fagon’s play received its world premiere at this theatre in 1975. It catches up with a team from the West Indies just after they have flamboyantly defeated England at their own game, in their own backyard. Directed by Dawn Walton, this rare revival promises to throw up new perceptions and insights in an era that is defined by the renewed urgency over Black Lives Matter.
Lava (Bush Theatre, London; 9 July-7 August)
Written by Benedict Lombe, a young female Congolese-British writer, this play – triggered when the woman at its centre receives an unexpected call from the British Passport Office – sounds as if it could become our era’s equivalent of Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972). That classic of the South African struggle against apartheid looks set to mutate into a complex, layered piece about living with Congolese-British identity in our ostensibly post-apartheid times.
After Life (Dorfman, National Theatre, London; 2 June-24 July)
At the National Theatre, what I am most looking forward to is this super-intriguing exercise in cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary imagining. The show is adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) from the award-winning film by Hirokazu Kore-eda. In a bureaucratic waiting room between heaven and hell, a group of strangers wrestle with the kind of problem that sounds at first like a footling piece of self-indulgence but which nonetheless nags at you insatiably. If you could spend eternity with just one precious memory, what would it be? My synapses are already on fire.
Bach & Sons (Bridge Theatre, London; 23 June-11 September)
The great Simon Russell Beale will play the renowned composer in the world premiere of a play by the exceptionally incisive and witty Nina Raine, directed by this Bankside venue’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner.
The Language of Kindness (press night, Warwick Arts Centre, 20 May, prior to going on a tour that visits the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, and Shoreditch Town Hall)
This is a show developed from Chrstie Watson’s bestselling memoir of her 20 years as a nurse. It exemplifies how theatre, being saturated in metaphor, can often best express things counter-intuitively. For better and worse, there is no job where tactility, touch and tact are more important than that of a nurse in the NHS. Yet, in this show, the performers never touch – to doubtless great illustrative effect.
Romeo and Juliet (The Globe Theatre, London; 26 June-17 October)
They may have put a great hole in the roof at the “wooden O” that is Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, but they don’t have a hole in the heart or the head, as is proved by a summer season that gives us the sizzling, subtle pairing of Alfred Enoch and Rebekah Murrell as the star-crossed lovers.
Metamorphoses (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 30 September-30 October)
In the candlelit-chamber intimacy of the Globe’s custom-built indoor space, there is the fascinating chance to check out Metamorphoses, a show inspired by the Roman poet Ovid, who was a massive influence on Shakespeare. This is a piece by the “Scriptorium” – a group of young people who, in one of the astute innovations of Michele Terry’s regime, are the first authors in 400 years to be appointed to the role that the Bard filled here (rather well, by all accounts): writers-in-residence.
The Walk (July-November 2021; consult www.walkwithamal.org to work out how you might intersect with the odyssey)
Lastly, in these times of unprecedented global change, an example of great international co-production masterminded by David Lan. Lan, the inspired artistic director of the Young Vic from 2000 to 2018, had just published As If By Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives (Faber) when the first lockdown hit. It is a classic, deeply enjoyable and honest account of how ground-breaking international hits are brokered and how theatre in England gave a gay, South African, Jewish exile a home-base. The publicity campaign was about to start but then got swallowed up as the pandemic imposed other priorities.
So it’s doubly good to see Lan emerge now with fists flying. The Walk sounds like a natural offshoot of The Jungle, the Young Vic show whose title referenced the nickname of the Calais refugee camp and whose content was derived from first-hand knowledge of the place. Good Chance Productions has gathered some formidable talent. Handspring Puppets, renowned as the creators of War Horse, have fashioned a 2.5-metre-tall puppet of little Amal, the girl who has to negotiate the Syrian-Turkish border and walk across Europe, thereby testing whether the “world will let her” get back to her mother and her school.
It sounds as though there has been some shrewd, playful analysis of the structure of fairy tales and epic stories. The piece will reflect the complexion and complexities of the countries that are walked through. That sounds like one of those Grimms’ Tales in which a chaotic crowd gets amassed like a great bedraggled tail behind the main character and ends up as – hey presto – a protest group.
There is a shiver-inducingly beautiful poem called “London Snow” – published in 1890 by the then poet laureate, Robert Bridges – that lets you feel things from the perspective of a child waking up to a world magically transformed by a fall of snow overnight: “And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness / Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare.”
By a similar token, it is as if we have been roused from the rigor mortis of a lockdown nightmare to discover that, in the interim, a tireless network of professionals has been planting a park filled with crocus bulbs. With luck, this place will flower with a multiplicity of further blooms as one ambles through it. Bravo and bonne chance to this under-sung bunch – we owe to them the survival of a great art-form – throughout the tricky months ahead.