‘Hedda’s’ up

It’s at least six months away, but why not start salivating now: Kristin Scott Thomas is expected to return to the West End in the second half of 2004 in a new production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” in a version by Christopher Hampton to be directed by Michael Blakemore.

The production follows Scott Thomas’s sensational spring 2003 West End stand as Masha in “Three Sisters,” with Hampton and Blakemore also on board. That one was a supposedly all-star production that got a lot less starry when Scott Thomas left the cast to return to family obligations at home in Paris.

With luck, the new “Hedda” should mark an upturn in critical fortunes for scribe Hampton, who, the success of “Three Sisters” notwithstanding, had a variable 2003: First, his Jung-themed play “The Talking Cure,” starring Ralph Fiennes, opened at the National to far-from-enthusiastic reviews, followed by some vigorous attacks at Cannes on his film “Imagining Argentina,” starring Emma Thompson. Perhaps most dispiriting of all has been the abortive end to the current West End revival of Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which will close Jan. 10, less than a month after opening to largely withering notices at the Playhouse — site of Scott Thomas’s earlier “Sisters”‘ triumph.

Losses on this “Liaisons” are expected to be near the £500,000 ($875,000) mark.

Balancing the books

As “Liaisons” proves, these can be tough economic times for the theater. So perhaps it’s worth starting 2004 by acknowledging a few of 2003’s surprise financial successes of the West End. The Sean Bean-Samantha Bond “Macbeth,” directed by Edward Hall, divided crix during its Albery Theater run, but there was little division over its aud appeal: By the end of its 16-week stand the production had double-recouped its $600,000 capitalization.

“Macbeth,” it could be argued, is virtually a theatrical brand name, which is more than can be said for the fiercely, sometimes foolishly determined hero, Brand, of Ibsen’s verse play of the same name. With that in mind, there’s perhaps no greater wonder of the West End year just gone of the payback after six weeks over the summer of helmer Adrian Noble’s revival of “Brand,” which went on to make a 46% profit on an original outlay of more than $400,000. For that, credit the marquee value of star Ralph Fiennes and the imprimatur — on that occasion, anyway — of the Royal Shakespeare Co., where the show began in Stratford.

Benign barber

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is looking pretty defanged these days at the Royal Opera House, where Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is running in rep through Jan. 14 in easily the least effective and affecting runthrough of this show I have yet encountered. The problem is hardly the exalted context: “Sweeney” richly holds its own on a stage that has found room for Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes, to cite just two other operatic outcasts of Sweeney-esque dimensions.

The real culprit is a cast that, pretty much to a person, delivers neither the chills nor the comedy of a piece that at least sounds lustrous, as played by a string-heavy orchestra almost double the size of what you would be lucky to find on Broadway. Making their debuts in the demanding central roles, neither Thomas Allen’s Sweeney nor Felicity Palmer’s meat-pie-making Nellie Lovett got anywhere near the ferocious levels of commitment — Sweeney to vengeance, Mrs. Lovett to her accomplice in cannibalism — required of the parts, with Palmer eliciting nary a laugh on her opening number, the usually delicious “Worst Pies in London.”

As for director Neil Armfield’s life-is-a-prison staging conceit, with its vague whiff of the concentration camp, the less said on that front the better: “Sweeney” doubtless will be slaying audiences long after this version has been forgotten.

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