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Mark Shenton: 14 unforgettable stage debuts

Daniel Radcliffe in Equus at the Gielgud Theatre, London. Photo: Uli Weber
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As The Stage Debut Awards launch, Mark Shenton looks back at those who made an immediate impression…

Judi Dench (1957)

Dench made her professional debut as Ophelia at the Old Vic in 1957. She told the Observer in 2012: “I didn’t know enough to be daunted by it at the time. I learnt an incredible amount from it. My notices were certainly daunting. You learn from them – you learn very soon. You just have to grit your teeth and get on and learn to do it better.”

The Evening Standard’s critic wrote: “Ophelia is played by a girl called Judi Dench whose first professional performance this only too obviously is. But she goes mad quite nicely and has talent which will be shown to better advantage when she acquires some technique to go with it.”

The Stage was kinder, with its critic observing that “she provides little of interest while she is sane… but in the mad scenes she has a remarkable haunting quality… She is so natural in expression and movement, so inside the part at this time, that I shall long remember her”.

In the Sunday Despatch, Richard Findlater devastatingly wrote: “Heralded by some windy homage, the latest victim of our theatrical girl-fever stepped out into the Old Vic limelight last week, tripped over her advance publicity, and fell flat on her pretty face.” He suggested, presciently: “Judi Dench, in time, may well be a prime asset of our theatre. A few years’ hard labour, in proper obscurity, will do wonders.”

Tom Stoppard (1967)

The Czech-born Stoppard was about to turn 30 when the National Theatre, then based at the Old Vic, gave the London premiere to his debut play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in April 1967, optioning it after an Edinburgh Festival Fringe production the previous summer. There it had been spotted by Observer critic Ronald Bryden, who called it “an erudite comedy, leaping from depth to dizziness”.

Its transfer to London was highly acclaimed, with Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times declaring it “the most important event in the British professional theatre of the last nine years”. Prizes soon followed too, including – as The Stage reported in July 1967 – the inaugural Whiting Award, established by the Arts Council to reward “British or Commonwealth playwrights whose work, whether published or actually produced, reveals a new or distinctive development in dramatic writing”. Stoppard shared the £1,000 prize with Wole Soyinka.

The play has just returned to the Old Vic for a 50th-anniversary production.

Sam Mendes (1989)

Mendes may now be best known as the director of the most recent films in the Bond franchise, but he began his career as a theatre director. He will be returning to the stage soon to direct the premiere of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman.

After graduating from Cambridge, his first job was as an assistant director at Chichester Festival Theatre, and where he got his first big break, taking over the directorial reins on a revival of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance in 1989, after original director Robin Phillips quit on the second day of rehearsals. As Michael Sell reported in his review for The Stage: “It was left to Sam Mendes to pick up the pieces. If the result be the fruits of adversity then let there be more because this is a production in the true tradition of Chichester, full of style, humour, warmth and movement of the highest order.”

It transferred to the West End’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket and Mendes’ future as a theatre director was sealed.

Sarah Kane (1995)

Sarah Kane’s all-too-brief career as a playwright (she killed herself at 28) was launched with spectacular controversy when her debut play Blasted premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1995. It was famously dubbed a “disgusting feast of filth” by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker for a scene that included a male rape, eye-gouging and cannibalism.

Other critics were hardly more receptive: in the Guardian, Michael Billington declared: “I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court’s normally judicious play-selection committee.” But he subsequently publicly recanted that view, declaring it a work of “moral seriousness”. In a Guardian feature in 2000, Billington said of the first night: “There was a man in front of me who stomped out, shouting that we’ve got to bring back the censor. There was a hysteria about the first night, and it was difficult to judge the play coolly and calmly. So I got it wrong, as I keep saying. She was a major talent. Apparently, Harold Pinter said at her memorial service that she was a poet, and I think that’s dead right.”

Among Kane’s small but influential body of plays that followed, Cleansed was revived at the National in 2016, while her posthumously produced 4:48 Psychosis has also become acknowledged as a cry from the heart.

Jez Butterworth (1995)

Hans Matheson in Jez Butterworth’s Mojo at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Next month Butterworth will return to the Royal Court with his latest play The Ferryman. The play sold out its entire run immediately and a subsequent West End transfer has already been announced.

His first play there, Mojo, in 1995, earned him a rare accolade as a first-time writer debuting on the main stage. It heralded his important arrival.

As Phil Gibby wrote in his original review of that production for The Stage: “It is an easy comparison, but it has to be made. Transport Quentin Tarentino from 1990s LA to 1950s Soho, and he’d produce something like this. So full credit to Jez Butterworth for getting there first.” He concluded by dubbing it “a chilling and thrilling piece of theatre that should become the smash of the summer”.

The play was turned into a 1997 feature film, directed by the playwright. It received a starry West End revival in 2013 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Butterworth would also go on to write one of the Royal Court’s biggest contemporary hits, Jerusalem, in 2009. It went on to the West End and Broadway.

Idina Menzel (1996)

Now one of Broadway’s biggest stars, Idina Menzel (or Adele Dazeem, as John Travolta infamously introduced her on Oscars night in 2014, when she performed Let It Go from the soundtrack to Frozen) made her professional debut as Maureen in the original Broadway production of Rent in 1996.

Menzel had replaced Sarah Knowlton, who had originated it Off-Broadway. Menzel also subsequently played the role in the 2005 film version. She was nominated for a Tony, but didn’t win; in 2003, she won the Tony for best actress in a musical for originating the role of Elphaba in Wicked. She has also since starred in TV’s Glee, Disney’s Enchanted and provided the voice of Queen Elsa for Frozen.

Sheridan Smith (1998)

Sheridan Smith in Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Now one of our most formidable musical theatre and screen actors, Smith is reprising the title role in Funny Girl on tour. She seems to have arrived fully formed on stage, without the benefit of formal training, beyond a stint in the National Youth Music Theatre. There she made her mark in shows such as Pendragon, which toured to New York, The Kissing Dance and Bugsy Malone, in which she made her West End debut as Tallulah at the Queen’s Theatre.

Smith’s professional stage debut came in 1998 in a revival of Into the Woods at London’s Donmar Warehouse, playing Little Red Riding Hood. She told The Stage in a 2007 interview: “Into the Woods was one of my all-time favourite jobs, partly because it is such a great show and partly because I was sharing a dressing room with 11 other actresses, including Sophie Thompson, Jenna Russell and Dilys Laye. The age range was about 17 to 70. I was the youngest, of course. We had so much fun and I learnt so much from them.”

Eddie Redmayne (2002)

Having won an Oscar for The Theory of Everything in 2014, and been nominated the following year for The Danish Girl, Redmayne is now in the top tier of our stage-to-screen exports, along with Benedict Cumberbatch and Damian Lewis. He began his professional stage career as Viola in a 2002 all-male production of Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe, but first came to wider attention when he starred as the son in the original London production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? at the Almeida in 2004.

Matt Wolf dubbed him “a blazing young actor” in a review for Variety, and said: “He plays the couple’s 17-year-old gay son, Billy, with such harrowing conviction that the play now seems just as much the kid’s tragedy as mom and dad’s.” The performance won Redmayne a Critics’ Circle theatre award in 2005 for best newcomer. He went on to win both an Olivier and a Tony award for John Logan’s Red, which transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to Broadway in 2010. He also starred in the title role of Richard II at the Donmar in 2011.

Ben Whishaw (2004)

Ben Whishaw in Hamlet at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Whishaw was just 23 when he made his Old Vic debut in the title role of Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet in 2004. Charles Spencer declared in the Daily Telegraph: “This is the kind of evening of which legends are made, one of those rare first nights that those who were present are never likely to forget. No theatre has boasted a more illustrious line-up of Hamlets than the Old Vic, among them Gielgud, Olivier, Burton, Guinness, Redgrave, O’Toole and Jacobi. Last night, 23-year-old Ben Whishaw spectacularly earned his place in such distinguished company. Ben who?, you may well be asking, and you would be entirely within your rights to do so. Whishaw only left RADA last year and was last seen playing bit parts in the National Theatre’s Christmas production of His Dark Materials.” In The Stage, Peter Hepple wrote: “He may appear sullen and mixed-up, but he can put the verse across and youth is, of course, on his side.”

Whishaw has gone on to become a major film actor in titles from Perfume to the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, but has regularly returned to the stage, including in Peter and Alice in 2013 and the Almeida’s Bakkhai in 2015, as well as The Crucible on Broadway for director Ivo van Hove in 2016.

Andrew Garfield (2004)

The LA-born, British-raised Garfield is now an international movie star, Oscar-nominated this year for Hacksaw Ridge and known for playing the title role in The Amazing Spider-Man.

But he began his acting career on stage, first with a youth theatre in Epsom, and then progressing to professional theatre, where, in a review for The Stage, Natalie Anglesey wrote of his performance in Kes in 2004 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange: “The pivotal role of young Billy Casper is beautifully realised by Andrew Garfield, making his Exchange debut. He subtly involves us in his transition from stoical acceptance of his unhappy lot to the liberating freedom he experiences during his time with the bird Kes.”

Garfield returned to the Exchange in 2005 to star in Romeo and Juliet, about which Lyn Gardner wrote in the Guardian: “His performance has that no-brakes whiff of danger that marks out the interesting Romeos from the indifferent ones.” He has remained committed to the theatre even after his film stardom, appearing on Broadway in Death of a Salesman in 2012 and returning to the National to star in its new production of Angels in America this summer.

Daniel Radcliffe (2007)

One of the stars of the new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Radcliffe is still only 27, but has grown up in full public view as star of the entire Harry Potter series of feature films, from 2001 (when he was just 11) to 2011. But it is his career after Harry Potter, in which he has unusually managed to turn child stardom into a lasting adult career, that has been most notable. While he has continued to act extensively in films, his stage debut in a West End revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus in 2007 marked a major shift in his progression to adult actor, with a much-publicised nude scene proving that he had grown up in every sense.

Jeremy Austin declared in his review for The Stage: “Harry Potter gets to flash his other wand around a London stage. Excitement over. Do not let the hype and the hyperbole detract from what is a competent performance in Shaffer’s possibly most powerful play. Daniel Radcliffe acts with intensity… His energies are so focused within the character, they almost glow, Potter-like, from within – his arms locked firmly by his side, his voice almost without pitch but cracking with teenage angst and emotion. Unlike many stars of the big screen, he has the ability to expand his range and fill a stage.”

Radcliffe has continued to test his stage mettle since, making his Broadway musical debut in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2011, appearing in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan in the West End in 2013, followed by a Broadway run, and in the US premiere of James Graham’s Privacy at New York’s Public Theater last year.

Polly Stenham (2007)

Playwright Polly Stenham was just 19 when she wrote her debut play That Face, which premiered at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in 2007 and about which Charles Spencer said in the Daily Telegraph: “This is one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in more than 30 years of theatre reviewing. Its author, Polly Stenham, a graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, is 20 now, just 19 when she wrote a play that sent me reeling into the night… In every respect this is a remarkable and unforgettable piece of theatre.”

In his review for The Stage, Gerald Berkowitz wrote: “While the broad overview may be predictable and familiar – that is, it is no surprise that the kids are messed up – it is in the subtleties that Stenham has much to tell us, such as the almost overpowering burden of denial (of different sorts) that the youngsters must labour under, the near-incestuous closeness such a secret life generates and the fact that the one who has chosen to be mother’s carer has so much invested in the mission that the prospect of failure is unbearable. All the characters are recognisable and believable, from the mother whose dependence on her son constantly threatens to cross a forbidden line, to the self-centred friend of the daughter who has no idea of the emotional quagmire she dances so blithely around the edges of.”

The play subsequently transferred to the West End and earned its young writer the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle theatre awards for most promising playwright.

Daniel Kaluuya (2008)

Daniel Kaluuya in Sucker Punch at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Fast-rising British actor Daniel Kaluuya is about to be seen on the big screen in Get Out, a satirical American horror film, but he first came to attention on the London stage at the Royal Court, first as part of the ensemble cast of Oxford Street (for which the entire company was Olivier-nominated for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre) in 2008.

He later played the lead in Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch in the main house in 2010, with Ben Dowell singling him out in his review for The Stage: “The performances are excellent, most especially from Daniel Kaluuya who is a mesmerisingly compelling Leon.” He won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle theatre awards for most promising newcomer for the role.

Lenny Henry (2009)

Lenny Henry in Othello at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lenny Henry may have already been a national TV star, but his West End stage debut in the title role of Othello in 2009 (after performing in Leeds and then on tour for Northern Broadsides) won him the 2009 Evening Standard award for best newcomer.

Charles Spencer wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “When I heard that the comedian Lenny Henry was to play Othello, it struck me as a cynically opportunistic piece of casting. Henry is a palpably decent and amiable man, and a genuinely beloved public figure. But, to be frank, he has never struck me as much of a comedian, let alone an actor, and his dramatic experience in the theatre extends only to panto and youthful appearances with the Black and White Minstrel Show in summer season. How on earth then was he going to cope with Othello, one of the most challenging roles in dramatic literature, which demands a combination of superb verse speaking and lashings of raw, racked emotion? Frankly, I was expecting to review a theatrical car crash. What a pleasure then to report that Henry truly triumphed last night.”

But it wasn’t just a triumph over negative expectation, as Spencer added: “This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen. It is impossible to praise too highly Henry’s courage in taking on so demanding and exposed a role, and then performing it with such authority and feeling.”

He has since gone on to confirm that promise with appearances in The Comedy of Errors at the National in 2011 and Fences at the Duchess in 2013.

The Stage Debut Awards

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