Star-struck theatregoers in London this year are being spoiled for choice as a succession of Hollywood stars tread the boards across some of the capital’s finest venues
It’s show time as Hollywood stars return to the London stage
So far this year, stage enthusiasts could have caught Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic in February (he followed Star Wars lead John Boyega in Woyzeck at the same venue in May), seen Oscar nominee Stockard Channing in Apologia at Trafalgar Studios over the summer, and will be looking forward to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery in Network at the National Theatre from early November.
Throw in Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo, Tom Hiddleston taking on Hamlet at Rada’s tiny 160-seat Jerwood Vanbrugh theatre, former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield in the epic AIDS drama Angels in America, and Academy Award-winner F Murray Abraham (for Amadeus in 1984) in The Mentor at Vaudeville Theatre, and you can see that 2017 will be a stellar year for the London stage.
But this is not a new phenomenon, as Georgia Snow, news editor at The Stage, the theatre industry’s trade title, tells me.
“I would not say there are more big names performing in theatre this year than any other, it seems to me to be a relatively consistent trend. And it certainly is not exclusive to the West End – it is very common on Broadway too.”
Snow says simple economics is behind a lot of the casting decisions: “Given the costs around producing theatre in the West End, it’s little wonder that producers do look to securing names that are going to sell tickets.”
The trend may have been around for decades, but in recent times the big name that most people remember as the first interstellar appearance in London was Nicole Kidman, who turned out in David Hare’s The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998.
An added bonus, perhaps, for the audience was that Kidman – then one of Hollywood’s biggest names and part of the ultimate power couple with Tom Cruise – disrobed on stage, causing one theatre reviewer to memorably froth that the play was “pure theatrical Viagra”.
Kathleen Turner went down a similar route two years later, while playing the role of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, and 2000 also saw appearances by Oscar winner Jessica Lange, Daryl Hannah and former child star Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone) in Madame Melville.
Some Hollywood stars found London theatre so beguiling that they moved to – and stayed in – the capital. Kevin Spacey appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida Theatre in 1998 and began a two-decade-long love affair with the capital, becoming artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in south London, where he staged and appeared in many plays during a 12-year stint.
It is clear the allure of going back to the stage is a particular challenge for many actors, representing a return to their roots for some, or an entirely new experience for others.
“I would also spend time in front of the National Theatre, because in the summer they would do performances outside,” says Boyega, a Londoner. “And on the way I would pass the Old Vic. That was not a theatre where I ever imagined I could be.”
He laughs and says: “It was the Old Vic and down the road there was a Young Vic. I was a kid. I was struggling to understand.”
Richard Thomas, who played John Boy in The Waltons and appeared in Yazmina Reza’s Art in the Wyndham Theatre in 2000, said of coming to London to act: “It is a very big deal for American actors. I’ve been waiting to get asked to this party for a long time.”
However, just because someone has brought cinemagoers into auditoriums to watch multimillion-dollar blockbusters, doesn’t mean they are going to have the necessary smarts when it comes to the far more intimate setting of a London theatre.
There have been many such failures.
For Donald Sutherland, the decision did not work out so well. He took on a role in Enigmatic Variations at the Savoy Theatre in 2000, but the play was panned.
Susannah Clapp wrote in The Guardian: “Until now, the Hollywood stars who have laid siege to the London theatre have come away with their reputations enhanced. Not any more.”
The same year, an annus mirabilis for so many other actors as we have seen, saw The Guardsman with Greta Scacchi starring close after just two weeks.
As Snow says, “It is easy to see why there is some debate around star casting when an individual with little theatre – or occasionally even acting – experience is cast in a prime role in order to get bums on seats, and other actors are not afforded such opportunities as a result.
“However, there is a counter argument. Casting a Hollywood star or a household name will undoubtedly attract audiences wanting to see that specific person and who might not go to the theatre otherwise,” she adds. “They may end up developing a theatre-
going habit as a result. The industry is under pressure to diversify its audiences, and using a popular name to enable this is not necessarily a bad thing.”
So what should potential theatregoers be looking for when they find out that their favourite actor from television or cinema has landed a role in a West End play? With ticket prices in London at an eye-watering high level, it is a potentially expensive mistake to make if it turns out the star is great at standing in front of a green screen and petrified in front of a real, live audience.
Snow has the final word: “I think what it really comes down to is whether the person cast in the role is suitable for the part and up to the task. Star Wars star John Boyega is a really good example of this. He was widely praised for his performance in Woyzeck at the Old Vic, and I’m sure attracted diverse audiences, despite being an example of star casting.”