When I look across the upcoming theatre year I’m delighted that I have hope. But in case you’re imagining that over the Christmas break I have turned into Pollyanna, let me mention that not quite all my hopes are bursting with unclouded joy.
First, the good news: lightning might strike twice. Back in 1996, Janet McTeer gave an unforgettably explosive performance as Nora in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End. Fast-forward to June 2020 and Jessica Chastain will make her UK stage debut in the same version of the play at the same theatre. It will be the third play in the new Jamie Lloyd Company season, which follows his hugely ambitious and too-little-lauded Pinter at the Pinter season, a Theatreland highlight of 2018 and 2019.
Chastain’s appearance is just one of several exciting casting choices for women in 2020. In the same month that Chastain appears, Isabelle Huppert will return to the London stage. The same year as McTeer’s Nora, Huppert made her UK stage debut at the National playing the title role (oppose Anna Massey) in Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Huppert will be at the Barbican for just six performances playing Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. It won’t, however, sound like Williams since Ivo van Hove’s production is in French (with English surtitles).
The following month, Cush Jumbo, another former Nora, will add her name to the list of female Hamlets, performing at the Young Vic. Anyone who saw Josephine and I, the up-close-and-personal solo show about the legendary Josephine Baker that Jumbo wrote and starred in, will be queuing for tickets. In September, Ruth Negga – who shot to fame by more than holding her own opposite Helen Mirren in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Phèdre – assumes the title role in Caroline Byrne’s revival of Marina Carr’s searing drama Portia Coughlan.
Jessie Buckley makes her National Theatre debut in August playing opposite Josh O’Connor (known for his screen performances in God’s Own Country and The Crown) in Romeo and Juliet. Not only did Buckley recently unobtrusively steal scenes from Renée Zellweger’s Oscar-tipped Judy Garland in Judy, she is also about to appear at Sundance opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the film Ironbark directed by Dominic Cooke – last seen at the helm of the NT’s magisterial production of Sondheim’s Follies.
The first of its two runs starred Imelda Staunton, who was so consumed by the role that she swore off theatre for a while. But Cooke has tempted her back and in August she’ll be delighting the waiters who will, quite rightly, be heralding her return, singing: “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong” when she goes to the Harmonia Gardens in Hello, Dolly! at the Adelphi.
Happily, there’s also a musical theatre return for Jenna Russell. From May, she’ll be playing the title role in a new production of Pam Gems’ Piaf, first at Nottingham Playhouse and then at Leeds Playhouse.
Of course, not all the good casting news is about female actors. Jake Gyllenhaal is back. He debuted in London as the standout – and least famous – member of the starry first cast (alongside Anna Paquin and Hayden Christensen) of Kenneth Lonergan’s long-running hit This Is Our Youth. Now far more celebrated, he’s at the Savoy from June starring – that, let me tell you, is the word – in the shimmering revival of Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George. Can Gyllenhaal sing? Oh yes, and some.
Hats off, too, to Matthew Warchus for casting not just Eileen Atkins for his Old Vic production of Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles but for the epic casting coup of Timothée Chalamet who, having shot to fame in the film Call Me by Your Name, is now ratcheting up raves for his Laurie in Greta Gerwig’s movie Little Women.
Back in musical theatre, there’s a slew of major openings on the horizon. At the end of January, The Wedding Singer opens at Wembley’s Troubadour Theatre. In a stunt some might find cheesy, Pretty Woman – The Musical begins previews at the Piccadilly Theatre on Valentine’s Day. Six days later, Back to the Future – The Musical (that inelegant title suffix is back) begins previews at Manchester’s Opera House, while Stephen Schwartz’s Moses-movie-musical The Prince of Egypt arrives at London’s Dominion.
So what’s the less-than-good news? Too many of these musicals are by the same writer/director teams that made the original movies. Faithful, maybe, but the secret of a great adaptation is to remain true to the spirit, not the letter. Is it too much to ask that stage adaptations be genuinely theatrical re-imaginings by theatre dramatists, not screenwriters pimping and primping their own screenplays? Or even, dare I say it, people writing original musicals?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict