Hollywood stars to open in packed season for West End theatres

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British theatre is preparing for one of its busiest autumns for years with a spate of serious plays as well as musicals opening in the West End.

British theatre is preparing for one of its busiest autumns for years with a spate of serious plays as well as musicals opening in the West End.

The formidably eclectic mix sees new works from David Hare and Andrew Lloyd Webber and the return to stage directing of the Oscar winner Sam Mendes. And, of course, there are the obligatory London debuts of American film stars. Such is the pressure to be heard above the buzz that even the Gilbert and Sullivan company, the D'Oyly Carte, is boasting a "radical" new Mikado.

The most bizarre offeringis Jeffrey Archer writing and starring in one of the first pieces of interactive theatre - a new courtroom drama, The Accused, with the audience voting nightly on whether the Archer character is guilty or not. The play opens on 5 December at a venue yet to be decided.

Hollywood stars Daryl Hannah and Jessica Lange star respectively in George Axelrod's The Seven Year Itch and Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night; Sam Mendes directs a new play, To the Green Fields Beyond by Nick Whitby, starring Dougray Scott of Mission Impossible 2 and Ray Winstone; Michael Gambon takes the lead in a revival of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker; Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, 20, plays a 15-year-old alongside French film star Irene Jacob in Madame Melville, a new play by Richard Nelson.

Next month there will be openings of the new Lloyd Webber, The Beautiful Game, the new David Hare, My Zinc Bed; Claire Bloom in Conversations after a Burial, by Yasmina Reza, who wrote the hugely successful ART; Adventures in Motion Pictures taking over the Old Vic with The Car Man, a mixture of theatre and dance; and the much-awaited Hamlet at the National starring Simon Russell Beale, swiftly followed by Vanessa and Corin Redgrave in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Add to this the transfer from studio space to main West End auditorium of Stones in his Pockets, the dazzling Irish two-hander, and it is beginning to look as if - despite dire predictions - theatre is the new rock'n'roll.

The season is such that Hollywood's Variety magazine has devoted a double-page spread to it. Matt Wolf, London editor of Variety, said: "The capital is bracing itself for the busiest spate of theatre in some time. Whether there is a sufficient audience time will tell."

American stars seem to be an essential part of the mix. Jerry Hall is already on stage in The Graduate, and although there are accusations of the West End dumbing down in the quest for "event theatre", Laurence Myers, co-producer of The Seven Year Itch, with Daryl Hannah in the Marilyn Monroe part, makes no apology for flaunting a star's attributes. "You don't import an American star who is gorgeous and not sell the fact that she's gorgeous."

The West End might have a new confidence, but the word "theatre" is not enough to woo every movie star.Dougray Scott said: "I was a bit nervous about going back on stage but Sam [Mendes] said 'it's like a movie, this play'."

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