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Mark Shenton’s week: Diary dates for 2017 and beyond

Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo: Johan Persson Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 2016. Photo: Johan Persson
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One of the biggest behind-the-scenes jobs I have is juggling my diary — there are always far more shows to see than nights to see them in (a nice problem to have). Just last Friday I could have been at Peter Brook’s Battlefield at the Young Vic or I Loved Lucy at Jermyn Street. By coincidence , my husband — who often goes to the theatre on sufferance — went to the Peter Brook himself last Friday with a friend who had tickets.

In fact, I was at the return of Simon McBurney’s production of The Magic Flute at the Coliseum, after interviewing him for The Stage, and taking along one of the students who participated in the recent Play the Critic programme I helped facilitate for The Mousetrap Foundation, in which students from two London schools saw the recent English National Opera production of La Boheme, directed by Benedict Andrews, and were then invited to a day’s workshop on how to respond to it critically. Each submitted a review, and one student from each school was chosen to join me and classical critic Alexandra Coughlan, the other facilitator, at an ENO first night.

I love going to ENO — it is one of the most exciting theatres in London from a musical point of view, and the best part is that I’m not on work duty as I don’t review opera. So I can go just to wallow in gorgeous music. (And soon, my Stage colleague George Hall, who reviews opera for the paper, will be represented by words on stage that he has provided for a new version of Bellini’s Norma, opening on February 17, so I would be wallowing, I hope, in gorgeous words, too, if I wasn’t being pulled instead to the opening the same night of The War of the Worlds at the Dominion).

There’s nothing unusual about multiple interesting openings in London on a single night

That there is more than one interesting London opening on a single night is nothing unusual. This Friday the transfer of Nell Gwynn to the Apollo from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens with Gemma Arterton. I could also be at the Almeida for Robert Icke’s new Uncle Vanya with Paul Rhys in the title role, and my personal passion for the work of Bend It Like Beckham composer Howard Goodall is tempting me to the opening of his and Beckham collaborator Charles Hart’s The Kissing-Dance at Walthamstow’s Ye Olde Rose and Crown.

I can’t see as many of these shows as I’d like — but I make good on (some of) the ones I miss by going on Saturday and Sunday, too.

Not a day goes by, it seems, without announcements of future goodies. With so much happening, it’s no surprise that a journalist’s inbox fills daily with press releases – as well as invitations to first nights, press conferences and press previews.

Next week, Disney’s Aladdin launches in the West End with a preview event the same night for another Broadway show, Hand to God. I’ll also be at the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Curtain Up exhibition this week, celebrating transatlantic traffic between the West End and Broadway.

And last week Rufus Norris called a press conference to announce some of his plans for the rest of 2016 and into 2017. The same day he revealed Andrew Garfield would be returning to the National. I saw Garfield in a triple bill of Burn/Chatroom/Citizenship in 2006, and he was also in the stalls for the opening night of The Master Builder, starring Ralph Fiennes. And Fiennes himself figured in Norris’s announcement: he, too, will be returning to the National in 2018 to appear in Antony and Cleopatra (though there’s no news of who his Cleo will be yet).

The night before the press conference, we saw Lucian Msamati appearing in a brilliant ensemble cast in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – the seventh time this fantastic actor has appeared at the National – and the next day Norris announced that he’s lined up next to play Salieri in an NT revival of Amadeus in October, to be directed by Michael Longhurst – one of a pair of directors who just last week I said are among the ones I’m watching most closely at the moment, the other being Robert Icke, who this week is responsible for the aforementioned Uncle Vanya at the Almeida. Norris also announced that Icke will make his South Bank directorial debut with a new play by David Hare called The Red Barn, to open in the Lyttelton in October.

These are just some of the tremendously exciting productions that Norris has announced, as he gets into his stride as artistic director of the National. And in a week full of big theatre news, the biggest (from a musical theatre point of view, at least) was last Friday’s announcement that – some 35 years after its original Broadway premiere – Dreamgirls is at last heading to the West End, where it will open in an all-new production at the Savoy in November.

I saw the original Broadway incarnation on my first ever trip to New York in 1983, and it remains utterly indelible — I saw it several more times after that, both at the Imperial and then when it made a return appearance at the Ambassador Theatre in 1987, the latter in a scaled-back touring version. I’d long lined up Cynthia Erivo as a candidate to play Effie White in a London production. She’s now unavailable as she’s busy becoming a superstar on Broadway in the transfer of The Color Purple. Instead Sonia Friedman has pulled off the coup of casting Glee sensation Amber Riley in the part: in Glee she delivered an astonishing audition for the role singing the powerhouse Act I curtain song And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. And I am telling you that I can’t wait to go.

While Riley makes her West End debut, we have theatrical returns for other veterans: Michael Crawford was also announced last week to star in a new production of The Go-Between, a musical I saw in its premiere run in Leeds in 2011 and has therefore taken five years more to get to town; while John Malkovich, who once starred at the old Hampstead Theatre in the Broadway play Burn This that subsequently transferred to the West End, will also be back, this time as a director, to helm Zach Helm’s Good Canary, which he previously directed in Mexico City and Paris, for a run at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. At the same theatre, Trevor Nunn’s penultimate show in his complete Shakespeare set will be King John – and Michael Rudman will direct All My Sons.

My diary doesn’t look like it’s going to be getting emptier any time soon… and I’m not complaining.

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