Producers prefer big-name talent to offset risk

You might imagine that, in a recession, theater owners would be begging producers for available product to fill their houses. Yet despite the perennial financial risks inherent in legit production, future shows are circling London’s West End like planes in a holding pattern.

The two headliners already given clearance to land are consecutive Royal Court productions.

“Enron” — produced by Matthew Byam Shaw, Act Prods., Caro Newling for Neal St. Prods., Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, Headlong Theater, Chichester Festival Theater and the Royal Court — will play 10 weeks at the Noel Coward Theater beginning Jan. 16. Twelve days later, Sonia Friedman Prods. and Royal Court Theater Prods. will open Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” for 12 weeks at the Apollo.

To the industry’s delight, although these dramas boast serious talent in the leads — Sam West and Mark Rylance, respectively — those actors are being employed for their theater skills rather than screen celebrity.

Off-the-record, however, producers are whispering that these exceptions prove the rule. In a seller’s market, theater owners are pressuring producers to supply big-name talent to help offset risk. Which may be one reason why popular TV comedian Lenny Henry is at Trafalgar Studios playing “Othello.”

On the heels of a BBC radio documentary that Henry made about his late-flowering love of Shakespeare, director Barrie Rutter offered him the role. Rutter’s ensuing staging with his Northern Broadsides company opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse and toured through the spring before being brought into town by Friedman and Robert G. Bartner.

Henry’s power, weight and dynamism are the best things about this “Othello.” The production itself, however, is overstated — too much shouting, underplayed and poorly blocked. It wants to be urgent, but it’s unatmospheric and peculiarly lacking in tension.

Daldry’s welcome caller

The only “name” in “An Inspector Calls” is that of its director, Stephen Daldry. Returning to the West End after innumerable international tours and awards, his celebrated revamp of J.B. Priestley’s thriller grips as tightly as ever. Astonishingly, it betrays no sign of age, despite having opened at the National Theater in 1993 after Daldry, designer Ian MacNeil and lighting designer Rick Fisher first conceived it for a barely seen production at York Theater Royal in 1989. Were it not for Debbie Allen’s revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” taking over at the Novello Theater in late November, “An Inspector Calls” could run and run.

Winsome Winstone

That prognosis is unlikely to be shared by another current revival of an early ’90s hit: “The Fastest Clock in the Universe” at Hampstead Theater.

Author Philip Ridley has slipped updates into his gothic, cruelty-can-be-beautiful, feel-bad 1992 play, but if it’s set now, how come the sexual politics is so dated? Finbar Lynch slyly brings much-needed humor to the self-conscious proceedings, but all eyes are on stage newcomer Jaime Winstone. While she’s supposed to be the most annoying character and her role is written with the least sympathy, Winstone’s scintillating timing steals the show.

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