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Mark Shenton: What makes a theatre star?

Aiden Turner, Laura Linney and Ian McKellen. Photos: Dan Wooler, Manuel Harlan and Pamela Raith Aiden Turner, Laura Linney and Ian McKellen. Photos: Dan Wooler, Manuel Harlan and Pamela Raith
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The West End, similar to Broadway, thrives on a bit of star power. As Matt Wolf recently noted in the New York Times: “Suddenly, it seems, the London stage is wreathed in stardust.”

He cites the appearances of Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe and Alfred Molina in Red, but he also points out that the biggest non-musical West End success for a generation, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, “boasts a global brand and doesn’t need big names”. Instead, it relies on getting good actors – and such is the strength of the play, and the attraction no doubt of a year’s guaranteed employment in a sold-out hit, that it is now on its third cast and still getting great talent signing on.

There’s star casting, of course, such as each of those earlier names, and then there’s stunt casting, where a name is parachuted into a role without necessarily having the credentials or experience for what they’re being asked to play – such as Cuba Gooding Jr in Chicago.

But, as Matt Wolf also points out: “An added issue in London is the gradual disappearance of a generation of actors — now in their 70s and 80s — who once defined the city’s stage and could be relied on to return there, even as they found a wider audience on screen.”

‘Theatre does not make true stars on its own any more’

One such returning legend is Ian McKellen, who next month reprises his Chichester King Lear. At 79, he remains, in Wolf’s words, “one of the increasingly few actors of his vintage who still treads the boards at a time when many colleagues (Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith) have given up the theatre. Another star returning to her stage roots is Glenda Jackson, 82, who just won her first Tony”.

Jackson has most recently appeared in a Broadway revival of Three Tall Women – which Maggie Smith, coincidentally, appeared in the original London production of back in 1995. Hopefully, we will see Jackson bring that back to London in time.

Meanwhile, Broadway is about to send us its production of The King and I, starring Kelli O’Hara. O’Hara is a Broadway star, but as yet unknown over here, so the show will have to be the star. But New York theatre’s best-selling star attraction of recent years is the return to musicals by Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!. She is about to return for a summer send-off of the show next month before it closes, but it would be a West End triumph if she chose to reprise it here (as she is rumoured to be considering).

The King and I star Kelli O’Hara: ‘Doing work that feels like it has a message is very satisfying’

As much as Broadway also loves a star name – and the coming months will see a return to Broadway for the original Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, and the prolific O’Hara in Kiss Me, Kate, after her London run in the King and I finishes – it is the title that is the star for many of the biggest forthcoming shows. Stage musical versions of Pretty Women (opening in August) and King Kong (opening in November, with an animatronic gorilla), and yet another biographical jukebox musical The Cher Show (opening in December), are on their way.

Meanwhile in London, in addition to the names that Wolf mentions, we are starting to see the emergence of a new generation of theatre-born stars such as Andrew Scott, currently back on the London stage in Sea Wall at the Old Vic, and one of the biggest draws of the summer is likely to be the stage appearance of Aidan Turner, best known for TV’s Poldark, in Michael Grandage’s new production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which opens next month. Like Linney, Bloom and Molina, while they have theatre chops, wider recognition for Scott and Turner has come through their screen work.

‘Meanwhile in London, we are starting to see the emergence of a new generation of theatre-born stars’

But, star power is also in the eye of the beholder. The shows I’m most looking forward to are star-led only to me (and perhaps some other regular theatregoers). I can’t wait to see Richard McCabe in Imperium (where the star is probably the title for readers of Robert Harris’ original books); Jenna Russell in Fun Home at the Young Vic; Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy at the National; Deborah Findlay, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Peter Forbes and Gwen Taylor in the world premiere of Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! at the Bridge and Rosalie Craig and Patti LuPone in Company at the Gielgud.

They’re all of them great theatre actors. But theatre does not make true stars on its own any more: how many people will buy tickets just to see them, rather than the shows they are in?

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