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Stars crowd London stage

Lange, Hannah amp up high-watt season

LONDON — It’s tempting to think of the forthcoming London legit autumn as so many ladies’ nights, since Shaftesbury Avenue come November should find Jessica Lange, Felicity Kendal, Daryl Hannah and Jerry Hall all cheek-by-theatrical-jowl.

That scenario, however, means leaving out of the mix Dougray Scott, Michael Gambon and novelist/playwright/politician/actor (choose one) Jeffrey Archer, who are among the season’s more notable males.

Whatever one’s perspective, the capital is bracing for the busiest spate of theater in some time, with a dozen major openings (and as many minor ones) due in September alone.

Is there a sufficient audience? Time will surely tell, just as it will assess the latest from David Hare, Matthew Bourne and Andrew Lloyd Webber, not to mention the return to theater directing after two years of Oscar-winner Sam Mendes.

“We all spin off each other,” says producer Lee Menzies of the imminent volume of work. “It rekindles one’s interest in going to the theater.”

Menzies’ entry is among the more unusual — “The Accused,” written by and starring (!) 60-year-old Lord Archer, London’s erstwhile mayoral candidate and perpetual writer of populist fiction (and, sometimes, plays). A Dec. 5 opening is skedded for the courtroom drama, with the audience nightly voting on the Archer character’s guilt — or not.

“The bigger the market, the better,” says Katharine Dore, producer of “The Car Man,” director-choreographer Bourne’s first dance-musical piece since nabbing two 1999 Tonys for “Swan Lake.”

The £1.2 million ($1.9 million) show began a pre-London tour in May and opens Sept. 13 at the Old Vic. Its advance — particularly impressive in the dog days of August — hovers in the $800,000 range.

“If we didn’t have such a strong product, I would be immensely nervous about going this early,” adds Dore, who moved up “The Car Man” opening by five days so as not to clash with “The Beautiful Game,” only then to have the Lloyd Webber-Ben Elton musical push back its press night by more than a week, to Sept. 26 at the Cambridge.

This show, adds Bourne, 40, “has no parallel, really; it is its own thing.”

Nor can it hurt that sex sells — note the healthy box office enjoyed by such otherwise disparate entries of late as “The Blue Room,” “Closer” and “The Graduate,” the last-named of which continues at the Gielgud with a critically derided, if leggy, Jerry Hall.

So it’s not wholly surprising that Sept. 28 sees the first preview at the Haymarket of a nine-week revival of “The Blue Room.” This is the recent Chichester Festival Theater production of David Hare’s play, not the Nicole Kidman-led original.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s an opportunity to do an interesting play by one of our leading writers,” fest director Andrew Welch says of the London-bound remount, which played Chichester’s 285-seat Minerva Theater throughout July. Loveday Ingram directs.

Relative unknowns Camilla Power and Michael Higgs play the multiple roles first associated in London and then on Broadway with Kidman and Iain Glen.

Hare, in turn, will be competing for audiences with himself: He is author and director of Royal Court season-opener, “My Zinc Bed,” premiering Sept. 14. Steven Mackintosh, Tom Wilkinson, and Julia Ormond comprise the cast.

Sex is unlikely to stray far off the menu of two October openings, each of which brings an unexpected visitor to the West End. Oct. 9 at the Queen’s sees the London legit debut of Daryl Hannah in “The Seven Year Itch.” The George Axelrod play remains best-known from the 1955 Marilyn Monroe film.

“You don’t import an American star who is gorgeous and not sell the fact that she’s gorgeous,” says co-producer Laurence Myers, who is banking $550,000 in the hope that a West End public will agree. (The play’s last West End stand, at the Albery in 1985, was wanly received.)

Directing the cast of nine is an unfamiliar West End name, erstwhile Oscar nominee Michael Radford (“Il Postino”), whose latest movie, “Dancing at the Blue Iguana,” stars Hannah as a stripper.

With the ink not quite dry on contracts, an October berth at the Vaudeville is planned for a younger man-older woman romance between “Home Alone” phenomenon Macaulay Culkin — who turns 20 this week — and French thesp Irene Jacob. (Elizabeth McGovern is under discussion to join the four-person cast.)

Their play, “Madame Melville,” is poised to mark a rare commercial foray for American writer-director Richard Nelson, who has so far this year won both a Tony (for “James Joyce’s The Dead”) and an Olivier (for “Goodnight Children Everywhere”).

Culkin will play a 15-year-old American in 1966 Paris who gets seduced by a Parisienne (Jacob) into art and music as well as (bien sur) l’amour.

“Richard’s writing very well these days,” says New York producer-director Gregory Mosher, one of several London backers of Nelson’s $700,000 (or thereabouts) show. Is this tantamount to a pre-Broadway tryout? Mosher demurs: “A London run is what this is; what happens later, happens.”

A similar reluctance to prophesy was sounded by dramatist Christopher Hampton, whose English-language translation of Yasmina Reza’s “Conversations After a Burial” opens Sept. 12 at the Almeida; Claire Bloom heads director Howard Davies’ six-person ensemble.

“I’m never able to call these things,” says Hampton, whose 1998 version of Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” finally reaches New York this fall.

“No one would have expected ‘Art’ — Reza’s global Tony-winning world-beater — “to be quite as successful as it has been.”

This latest opening is in fact Reza’s first play, dating back to 1987 Paris where it won the best play Moliere, that city’s equivalent of the Tony.

New York interest is bound to be keen in other openings, too, starting with Trevor Nunn’s National Theater production of “The Cherry Orchard,” with real-life siblings Vanessa and Corin Redgrave cast as sister and brother in Chekhov’s play. Sept. 21 is the Cottesloe opening, where the present booking period is already sold out.

A September 2001 New York run is quietly being hatched for the National’s new “Hamlet,” starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by John Caird. The production opened Aug. 16 in Elsinore as the first London “Hamlet” in 21 years to travel to the play’s Danish location. The National bow is Sept. 5 in the Lyttelton.

A November start at the Comedy is on course for producer Robert Fox’s remounting of Harold Pinter’s 1960 “The Caretaker.”

Playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”) directs a high-powered cast consisting of Michael Gambon, Rupert Graves and Douglas Hodge.

Equally starry is the Tyrone family quartet assembled for director Robin Phillips’ revival of “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” opening Nov. 21 at the Lyric: Jessica Lange and Charles Dance as Eugene O’Neill’s troubled Tyrones, with Paul Rudd and British TV heartthrob Paul Nicholls as their variably tormented sons.

Enthuses Harold Sanditen, inhouse associate to producer Bill Kenwright: “It’s the most gorgeous Tyrone family in the history of the planet.”

Lange will be appearing next door to Felicity Kendal, an English perennial who was a local minx back when Daryl Hannah was barely pubescent. Kendal and Frances de la Tour play married women who once shared a lover in “Fallen Angels,” director Michael Rudman’s revival of Noel Coward’s 1925 play; expect an Oct. 25 bow at the Apollo.

Overseas attention looks to be most focused on the Donmar Warehouse’s “To the Green Fields Beyond,” “American Beauty” helmer Mendes’ first play since that first go-round of “The Blue Room” two autumns ago, also at the Donmar.

Displacing Mendes’ original choice of play, “Twelfth Night,” the Nick Whitby premiere opens Sept. 25; Ray Winstone (“Nil By Mouth”) and “Mission: Impossible 2’s” Dougray Scott head the cast, the latter in his first stage outing in seven years.

“I was a bit nervous about going back on stage, and Sam said, ‘it’s like a movie, this play,’ ” confesses Scott, who came to rehearsals barely a month after finishing the Tom Stoppard-scripted movie “Enigma.”

Not that the Scottish thesp has time to track all the other shows stirring into life around him. “I have tunnel vision completely; I have no idea what else is opening.”

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