West End bulks up on dramas as star wattage wanes

'Ducktastic,' 'Glorious' among season's new plays

After several months in which London’s theatrical big hitters have mostly landed in tiny subsidized venues, the West End is revving up. The next six weeks see an unusually busy — and weighty — array of work jockeying for position. Broadway, in several instances, surely beckons.

The list includes one show about a duck (“Ducktastic”) and another about a woman, soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, who sang like one (“Glorious!”); Agatha Christie for the 21st century; and a three-character, intermissionless play about Frenchmen that’s not “Art.”

The season lacks the visiting Hollywood and TV names that have become a West End staple of late, even if neither Kim Cattrall in “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” nor Val Kilmer in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” were money-makers. These days, the play over the next month or so really is the thing — especially when the producers involved have a strong track record.

On that front, cue David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, who haven’t brought anything to the West End since “The Play What I Wrote,” nearly four years ago. Before that, they produced “Art,” which went through 26 casts and later won the Tony Award for play.

Interest is appropriately high for their back-to-back preems Oct. 17 and 18 of “Ducktastic,” at the Albery, and “Heroes,” at Wyndham’s. The first is from “The Play What I Wrote” team Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, directed by Kenneth Branagh. The second is a French three-character one-act featuring two of the many London stars of “Art”: Ken Stott and Richard Griffiths. (John Hurt completes the cast.)

“A lot of people want to say it’s another ‘Art,’ and it’s not, as a play. But as a producing model, who knows?” co-producer Rogers says of “Heroes,” which has been adapted into English by Tom Stoppard. Will helmer Thea Sharrock’s £400,000 ($700,000) production achieve “Art’s” onward trajectory? “Of course, the hope is there,” says Rogers, as evidenced by the Shubert Org’s presence as co-producer. Play, set in 1959, concerns three residents of a French military hospital on the day of their putative escape.

Scott Rudin is partnered with Pugh and Rogers on “Ducktastic,” a $1.4 million West End entry that has a cast of 26, says Rogers, “including the ducks.” Choreographed by Michael Rooney (son of Mickey), the show draws its inspiration from Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried & Roy — in this case, a British magician, Christopher Ursula Sassoon, and his sidekick, Roy de la Rue (nee Street).

Show would seem a more obvious New York bet than “Play What I Wrote,” which braved Broadway despite being about British humorists Morecambe & Wise, all but unknown outside the U.K. Cautions Rogers: “We don’t want to count our ducks before they’re hatched. We’ve got to get London right first.”

Owen McCafferty’s “Shoot the Crow” was first seen in Galway, Ireland, in 1997 and then Manchester, England, in 2003. On Oct. 11, it opens at London’s 380-seat Trafalgar Studios for 10 weeks in a $450,000 staging from helmer Robert Delamere. James Nesbitt and Conleth Hill topline the drama about four tilers on a Belfast building site. “I always say I’m never going to do a new play again, and then I always do,” says lead producer Sonia Friedman, whose summertime Irish entry, Brian Friel’s “The Home Place,” closed early in the red.

As regards the autumn influx, “In the end, if the work is good enough, it will survive; I just wish it was spread out a bit more,” she says.

“And Then There Were None” has nearly $1 million riding on a time-honored name, Agatha Christie, as newly rethought by scribe Kevin Elyot (“My Night With Reg”); opening is Oct. 25 at the Gielgud. “For a play, it is very expensive,” ACT productions exec Nick Salmon says of Steven Pimlott’s production, which promises a cast of 10, eye-popping special effects and four Mark Thompson sets.

Elyot cut his Christie-esque teeth adapting Poirot and Marple novels for TV. But is there pressure for this play to follow “The Mousetrap’s” record-breaking lead? Deadpans Elyot: “I don’t think any show opens thinking it’s going to run for over 50 years.”

It had been many years since the German dramatist Schiller was any kind of West End presence. But with last winter’s “Don Carlos” revival a still-vivid memory comes the transfer to the Apollo of the Donmar’s summer staging of “Mary Stuart,” opening Oct. 19. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter continue their starry reign.

Thirty years have passed since Simon Gray’s “Otherwise Engaged” first played London; now it’s back in a $425,000 production directed by Simon Curtis and starring Richard E. Grant — “an absolutely natural fit,” says producer Mark Rubinstein, for the star part of the Wagner-loving publisher yearning for peace and quiet.

Pirandello’s little-known “As You Desire Me,” opening Oct. 27 at the Playhouse, finds Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins heading a cast of 14 in an $800,000 production from one-time Almeida topper Jonathan Kent; the new version is from Emmy winner Hugh Whitemore.

Cineastes may remember the 1932 film of the same name. Greta Garbo took Scott Thomas’ current role as a nightclub singer who has lost her memory in an attack.

One show that seems highly unlikely for Broadway is “Glorious!” opening Nov. 3 at the Duchess. The reason? The bioplay about the American soprano (played by U.K. fave Maureen Lipman) would conflict with the commercial transfer of “Souvenir,” with Judy Kaye, on the same topic.

Not that scribe Peter Quilter minds the sudden interest. “It happens all the time in Hollywood, where two films come out on the same subject; sometimes they just rub off each other and create a bit of electricity.” Investors will be hoping that happens here.

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