'Calendar Girls,' 'War Horse' storm London

The West End is no longer hospitable to drama. At least, that’s what the doom merchants would have us believe. And with tuners like “Avenue Q” and Michael Jackson tribute “Thriller” occupying playhouses, a casual glance might support that claim. But it’s far from the truth.

Last week, producers announced the recoupment of “Three Days of Rain,” which is interesting for two reasons. First, the casting — James McAvoy, Lyndsey Marshal and Nigel Harman — was about quality actors, not megawatt star names. Second, the show opened in town rather than transferring from a tryout run elsewhere.

Opening cold is extremely rare in London. Without initial reviews and word of mouth, the risk is almost prohibitively high.

That’s one reason the next couple of months are awash with transfers, many of them doing stellar business.

The box office front-runner is “Calendar Girls.” Premiered at Chichester Festival Theater and produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, the show is adapted from the 2003 Disney movie about a band of local women who created a nude calendar to raise money for leukemia research.

After becoming the fastest-selling U.K. tour in history, the show sailed into town April 4. The London run is playing at 94% capacity and brandishing a £1.7 million ($2.5 million) advance. Not only is that double the figure generated by Pugh and Rogers’ production of “Equus,” starring Daniel Radcliffe, but the $65 top-price ticket for “Calendar Girls” is $7 lower than that of “Equus.” Current sales rate should see it nudging $3 million by mid-April.

Unsurprisingly, the show’s road rollout also looks healthy. The U.K. tour recommences in January, and productions will open in Australia in March and Canada in 2010-11. Rogers and Pugh are also eyeing possibilities in the U.S.

Yet “Calendar Girls” holds the top spot only by a nose, with “War Horse” in second place. After two SRO runs at the National, not only has the show galloped into town with a $2.4 million advance, it also remains London’s most exhilarating piece of theater. The imaginative and emotional power of its staging will be talked about for years.

Trevor Nunn‘s revival of “A Little Night Music” also is heading West. Aside from the removal of “Silly People” (the song written and cut in 1973 that Nunn unwisely returned to the score for the Menier Chocolate Factory run), the show and its unexpectedly youthful cast remain intact.

Richard Eyre‘s Chichester production of “The Last Cigarette,” a dramatization of diaries by late playwright Simon Gray, starring Nicholas Le Prevost, Felicity Kendal and Jasper Britton, arrives at Trafalgar Studios April 21.

The Almeida is also busy with transfers. Matthew Lloyd‘s revival of “Duet for One” segues from its tour to the Vaudeville May 7, and rumors are building surrounding current Almeida presentation, “Parlour Song.” Jez Butterworth‘s 2008 play was turned down by the Royal Court but premiered at Gotham’s Atlantic Theater Company; it has been given a taut U.K. debut by Butterworth’s favored director, Ian Rickson, with a dynamite cast of Amanda Drew, Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln.

And word is out that Anna Mackmin‘s joyous, exquisitely acted Old Vic revival of Brian Friel‘s “Dancing at Lughnasa” also is West End-bound. No theater has been announced, but negotiations are under way.

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