The top 12 shows to see this autumn
As the season of mists approaches, The Stage’s lead critics Natasha Tripney and Tim Bano pick the shows destined to cut through the gloom
A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic, London
While the prospect of a new play by Lucy Prebble is exciting in and of itself, the subject matter – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko – is doubly intriguing. As she proved in Enron, Prebble has the capacity to take complex, idea-dense material and make it vibrant and theatrical. If anyone can bring out the mixture of absurdity without losing sight of the human tragedy at its heart – a man’s protracted death and his wife’s struggle for justice – it’s her. The play is based on the book by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, delving into the inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder. The never less than compelling Tom Brooke plays Alexander opposite MyAnna Buring as Marina Litvinenko. It opens on September 5.
Solaris – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
David Greig is evidently a man unafraid of a challenge. This year he has collaborated on a musical adaptation of beloved Scottish film Local Hero and has left the earth with The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union. Now he’s going off-planet again, adapting Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical science fiction novel – also the basis for the film by Andrei Tarkovsky (and the subsequent Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney remake) – for the stage. Matthew Lutton, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, directs an international cast in a production that opens on September 14.
Big the Musical – Dominion Theatre, London
The ratio of ‘times we’ve been excited by musical adaptations of beloved movies’ versus ‘times we’ve been disappointed by them’ is pretty much 1:1. Ok, there was Groundhog Day, Legally Blonde and (fight me) Heathers, but with so many burnt fingers from the rest, I’m approaching Big warily. Based on the 1988 Tom Hanks movie about a boy who turns into a man overnight, it’s not actually a new show. With music from David Shire (known for his film scores), lyrics from Richard Maltby Jr (Miss Saigon) and book by John Weidman (Assassins), it premiered in the US in 1996 to some good reviews, although it took until 2016 before it came to the UK for a tryout in Plymouth. Jay McGuiness stars in the West End run, which opens on September 17.
An Enemy of the People – Nottingham Playhouse
Following Mark Gatiss’ acclaimed performance in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse last year, Alex Kingston takes on the role of Dr Stockmann in one of this autumn’s many intriguing Ibsen adaptations (there are new versions of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House opening in September too). Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s take on the play will be directed by Nottingham Playhouse’s artistic director Adam Penford and will open on September 17.
Assassins – Watermill Theatre, Newbury
There are good productions of Assassins, and there are extraordinarily crass ones. It’s going to be very interesting to see what director Bill Buckhurst does with this show right now. After his success with Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse last year, this is an altogether trickier prospect: Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical takes all the people who’ve tried to assassinate a president and sticks them together in this revue-style show, set in a carnival and reflecting American music through every era. It’s Sondheim at his most playful – and his most serious. It’s an actor-musician production, co-produced with the Watermill, a venue that has that form down to a tee. It opens on September 30.
[Blank] – Donmar Warehouse, London
Clean Break has been making pioneering work with women affected by the criminal justice system for 40 years. Having previously collaborated with the Donmar Warehouse on Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, the company marks its anniversary by joining forces with the theatre once again for the new play by Alice Birch. Her work is always fascinating and formally adventurous and this looks set to be the same, composed of 100 scenes. It is directed by Maria Aberg whose work is also always distinctive – her Little Shop of Horrors was a blast and I still have a soft spot for her production of King John,which saw her casting across gender and inserting a Dirty Dancing interlude into the play. She helms the production as part of Michael Longhurst’s genuinely exciting inaugural season as artistic director. It opens on October 17.
A Museum in Baghdad – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
For a while now, the Swan Theatre has been the more excitingly programmed of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s two main spaces. This timely new play by Hannah Khalil is set in Iraq and inspired in part by the life of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell. Straddling two time periods, it looks likely to ask pertinent questions about cultural ownership and the purpose of museums. Directed by Erica Whyman, it opens in the Swan Theatre on October 22.
Mold Riots – Theatr Clwyd, Mold
Yet again, Theatr Clwyd shows how high-quality theatre can speak to, involve, and shape its local community. Bethan Marlow’s bilingual play follows the story of the riots in the summer of 1869, when Flintshire’s miners – protesting continually decreasing wages as well as a ban on speaking Welsh when underground – were brutally suppressed by English soldiers. The show is going to hit the streets of Mold with a community cast of 100, and is directed by Katie Posner, recently announced as one of the new artistic directors of Paines Plough. Should be a pretty epic spectacle. It runs from October 21-26.
Light Falls – Royal Exchange, Manchester
It’s been a phenomenal run for Sarah Frankcom as the Royal Exchange’s artistic director, and her valedictory show is quite a way to bow out: a play by Simon Stephens with music by Jarvis Cocker. The description is vague, but it sounds very Simon Stephens-ey, which is usually a synonym for ‘confusing, but in a good way’. The play looks at five relatives in five different English towns and Stephens has described it as a ‘hymn of the North’. It opens on October 29.
Dear Evan Hansen – Noël Coward Theatre, London
Dear Evan Hansen is one of those Broadway musicals that instantly established its own cult. We’ve been waiting three years for The Greatest Showman’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Broadway-buster to hit the West End, meanwhile every musical theatre nerd has tried – and snottily failed – to hold it together while singing Waving Through a Window to themselves in the shower (right?). Anyway, it’s about a teenage boy who writes a series of letters to himself in an attempt to cope with the death of a friend. It opens at the Noël Coward Theatre on November 19.
&Juliet – Shaftesbury Theatre, London
The list of songs written by Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin is essentially a list of every major hit of the past two decades. Martin wrote Baby One More Time with Britney Spears, Blank Space with Taylor, I Kissed a Girl with Katy Perry, Can’t Stop the Feeling with Justin, plus hits for P!nk, Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Ariana Grande and Adele. His back catalogue is ridiculous. Naturally, he’s decided to put these songs into a new musical that imagines Shakespeare’s Juliet deciding not to kill herself at the end of the play. The creative team is bursting with young talent: Miriam-Teak Lee, one of the original UK Hamilton cast, is Juliet and Luke Sheppard directs off the back of some extraordinary work – In the Heights, NST’s Billionaire Boy, the Watermill’s Murder for Two and Adrian Mole in the West End. It opens on November 20.
Joan of Leeds – New Diorama, London
Breach, the company founded by Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens and Dorothy Allen-Pickard, make devised documentary theatre. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True – a powerful verbatim work based on the transcripts of the rape trial of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi – was one of the hits of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe and returned there this year as part of the British Council showcase. I’ve seen it three times, with a differently configured cast each time, and it gets richer on each re-watch. The company’s new show is billed as an “obscene medieval mystery play with live music,” based on the true story of a 14th-century fugitive nun, which sounds pretty irresistible. Previews start on December 3.
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