Holly come lately - can Anna match Audrey?

Anna Friel has been cast as the lead in an upcoming stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's a brave actress who will step into the role immortalised by Audrey Hepburn, says Rhoda Koenig

The audience at the stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany's that opens this September may be expecting a Manhattan romance between a sexy young writer and a waif-like girl in a Givenchy dress who softly sings "Moon River". But, says director Sean Mathias, they are guaranteed only the place and the song. The Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini tune apart, Samuel Adamson's play, in which Anna Friel will portray Holly Golightly, is based on the Truman Capote novella of 1958 rather than the film of 1961, which starred Audrey Hepburn. Another show that took the same approach, however, and that also cast a TV star in the lead, was the Broadway musical of 1966, which, despite a $1 million advance, never made it to opening night.

In Blake Edwards' movie, Hepburn and George Peppard are two mixed-up kids who romp through a New York photographed like a lovers' playground and kiss while cuddling her nameless cat. Adamson, Mathias says, has conveyed the original story's darkness and melancholy, looking at the material through the lens of the present rather than that of the film, which changed Holly Golightly from gamy to gamine. When Hepburn asks her dates for $50 "for the powder-room", they get a smile in return; Capote's Holly comes across, and gets pregnant. While the movie is set in the year it was made, the novella takes place in wartime, and it's not hard to guess why its male narrator received a draft deferment. There are many references to gay men and women, all of which were suppressed in the film. It would have been startling indeed to hear Hepburn say, as Holly does when a policewoman arrests her, "Get them cotton-pickin' hands off of me, you dreary, drivelling old bull-dyke" or choosing, as her ideal celebrity lover, Greta Garbo (in the movie – an in-joke?– it's Leonard Bernstein).

Despite her language and her occupation, Capote's Holly is, in her way, ladylike and innocent. Her sophistication is that of a precocious child, archly exclaiming, "It's too gruesome!" or "Quel beast!". Waiflike but gallant, unscrupulous yet principled, she spins one fantasy after another, but, as a friend says, "She isn't a phony because she's a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes." Mathias thinks Friel will make a good Holly because "she has lots of style and sex but also a big heart. Also, anyone who comes from outside a big city, as Anna does, knows that, to get on there, you have to put on a mask." There remains, of course, the problem of her taking on a role so identified with a beautiful, beloved star. "You said it," says Mathias. The two will be working to differentiate Friel from Hepburn as much as possible, giving her Holly a rougher vocal quality and a distinctive appearance. Mathias doesn't want to be specific this early, but he has probably noticed that, while Hepburn had long, dark hair, the Holly of the novella had a boyish cut, of "self-induced blonde".

Though many women claimed to be the original Holly, it was Capote himself who was the main model for her as well as for the narrator. Holly's real name (Lulamae) is a near-echo of his mother's (Lillie Mae). Another influence was probably Capote's childhood friend Harper Lee. When Holly says one of the narrator's stories is full of "trembling leaves" and dismisses it with, "Negroes and children: who cares?" she could be sending up her creator or teasing the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

An important factor in the film's success was its Oscar-winning song, whose vague, wistful lyrics helped soften the dubious aspects of Holly's character. In calling the river "my huckleberry friend", Mercer was of course alluding to the greatest American novel, but one can't help wondering if he also had in mind the fact that one of Capote's previous books, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was referred to in some circles as "the fairy Huck Finn." Using "Moon River" "was the hardest decision I had to make", says Mathias, who feared it would jolt the audience out of Capote's world and into that of the movie. "At first I wasn't going to put it in, but a friend told me, 'If you don't, everyone will say, "Where is it?"'"

The creators of the new stage version are staying well away from anything to do with the notorious musical flop, whose score, by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl), and stars, from hit TV shows (Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore), did not save it from disaster. By the time it staggered into New York after two extra months out of town, the show had gone through three librettists, including Edward Albee, and two directors. Some of the audience were leaving soon after the curtain rose, appalled by the language of America's TV sweetheart (Mathias reckons people would now be more likely to be put off by a tart whose vocabulary was squeaky-clean); others reached for their coats when the musical turned out to be four hours long. Closing the show after four previews, its producer, David Merrick, announced that he did not wish to "subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciating, boring evening".

The producer of this version may not be as flamboyant as Merrick, but it's certainly unusual. Breakfast at Tiffany's is being "sponsored", the first time such an arrangement has been made for a West End show, by the makers of Chambord raspberry liqueur, which will have branded bars in the theatre and its name above the title. There will also be a Holly Golightly cocktail (Holly would be revolted: she drank martinis), but Mathias emphasises, rather testily, that Friel will at no time praise the product or offer it to friends.

At the moment, he has other matters on his mind, notably how to handle the trickiest member of the cast to make sure he will not upstage his fellow actors. Of course, if he gets fed up, he can always send Cat back to his box.

'Breakfast at Tiffany's', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0845 481 1870) opens 9 September

Friel's finest moments

Brookside (1993-95)

Anna Friel's big break came when she joined the cast in the long-running Merseyside soap opera 'Brookside'. As Beth Jordache, she memorably sparked off huge controversy with a lesbian screen kiss, which made soap history and cemented her fame (right). She eventually won the 1995 National Television Award for the role.

Closer (1999)

In her Broadway debut, Friel gave a stand-out performance as the mysterious minx, Alice, in the New York transfer of Patrick Marber's scintillating anti-romance 'Closer'. The production, also starring Rupert Graves, Natasha Richardson and Ciaran Hinds, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

Lulu (2001)

Friel made her London stage début in Frank Wedekind's 'Lulu', where she starred as the nubile, nymphomaniac heroine. Jonathan Kent's well-received Almeida production later transferred to the West End and then to Broadway.

Pushing Daisies (2007-09)

Friel's career was revitalised when she beat off American competition to land the lead in this kooky afterlife fairytale drama on ABC (above). Her performance as Charlotte "Chuck" Charles, brought back to life by her childhood sweetheart, Ned (Lee Pace) won her a Golden Globe nomination, emulating the success of other British faces in LA – Hugh Laurie in 'House', Dominic West in 'The Wire' and Joely Richardson in 'Nip/Tuck'.

Land of the Lost (2009)

In another major coup for the British actress, she will star as the sidekick to Will Ferrell, who plays a time-travelling, "disgraced palaeontologist" in his latest blockbusting adventure. Released in America this week (and next month in the UK), the film should confirm Friel, along with her partner 'Harry Potter' stalwart David Thewlis, as major players in both British and American acting circles.

- Robert Matthews