West End's Leading Ladies Return to the Stage

News   West End's Leading Ladies Return to the Stage

After a year in which the best parts seemed to belong to the men (Matt Damon, Woody Harrelson, Kyle MacLachlan, Simon Russell Beale, Oliver Ford Davies, Jude Law, Jochum ten Haaf), autumn sees a return to form by some of England's leading ladies, as a number of our best actresses return to the West End stage.

Heading the list are two of our theatrical dames, both of them box-office dynamite: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, who will co-star in David Hare's new play The Breath of Life when it opens at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on Oct. 15.

Both are well known to a wider audience through their film work. They appeared together as a couple of spinsters in the Merchant Ivory film of "A Room With a View" in 1984, but both are devoted to, and superb in, live theatre. Among Dame Maggie's best roles over the last decade have been her aged matriarch in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women at Wyndham's, while Dame Judi scored a personal triumph in David Hare's Amy's View at the Aldwych and on Broadway.

Both had as a co-star, in each of those productions, Samantha Bond (who has also appeared with Dame Judi in several James Bond films), and Miss Bond will be a leading lady herself in November, when she plays Lady Macbeth opposite Sean Bean at the Albery. Prior to the dames' arrival at the Haymarket, Sinead Cusack can be seen playing another great female Shakespearean role, that of Cleopatra. She has received great reviews, though one that referred to her "raddled glamour" may not have been exactly flattering to read over the breakfast table.

"Raddled glamour" is a phrase one might more readily associate with a lady of the night than with the still alluring Queen of Egypt, and Brenda Blethyn plays a woman who earns her income in an unusual (and, when Shaw wrote the play, unacceptably shocking) way in Mrs. Warren's Profession at the Strand — the press night is scheduled for Oct. 10.

Shaw is well-known for his wit, and so is Dame Maggie, who is widely quoted as having said, of Glenn Close, "Glenn Close? Glenn Close? That's not an actress, it's an address!" Let's hope the two leading ladies don't come face to face at the Ivy after their respective shows.

This is a distinct possibility this autumn, as Miss Close is leaving Hollywood (and the American stage, where she was a remarkable Norma Desmond in Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard) for the National, where she opens — as Blanche Du Bois — in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire on Oct. 8, a week before Dame Maggie appears before the press at the Haymarket.

Another American star over here at the moment is Elaine Stritch — already settled into her home away from home, the Savoy, and opening at the Old Vic on Oct. 9 in the aptly named Elaine Stritch — Direct From Broadway, which recently scored a direct hit on Broadway.

Among the home-grown stars of the autumn are Alison Steadman, still fondly remembered for her stage and television role as Beverley in her husband Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, but more recently seen at the Arts giving a hilarious performance as the sex-starved spinster in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

Joining her in The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband at the New Ambassadors on Sept. 16 is a leading lady from a younger generation, Daisy Donovan, a comedienne, actress and television presenter who, with her appearance in Debbie Isitt's black comedy, will lay claim to a West End career as well.

Emily Watson, fresh from her international success in Julian Fellowes' Oscar winning film "Gosford Park," is to play opposite one of Britain's most distinguished actors, Simon Russell Beale, at the Donmar in Uncle Vanya (opens Sept. 17) and Twelfth Night (opens Oct. 22), in what will be artistic director Sam Mendes' farewell productions at the Donmar.

Penelope Wilton, who starred at the Donmar earlier this year in The Little Foxes, in which she earned her usual chorus of praise from the theatrical press, is to star opposite John Hurt in Brian Friel's fascinating take on two of Chekhov's characters — she plays Sonya Serebriakova, from Uncle Vanya — in Friel's Afterplay at the Gielgud (press night Sept. 19).

—By Paul Webb Theatrenow