2004 West End
2004 was a big year for the National Theatre, with new Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner starting the year strong, announcing his cutting edge plans to reduce ticket costs and make the venue as accessible as possible to everyone, regardless of price. The new £10 Travelex Season saw the worlds largest foreign currency exchange service sponsor the venue, offering a significant percentage of seats for certain shows throughout the show available for only £10. Seen as ‘breaking down boundaries’, Hytner was praised for the move which saw attendance climb to a staggering 93% across all three of the National’s South Bank venues. Hytner also began to entertain the idea of Sunday openings (a venture Broadway theatres have done for years) with an aim to attract tourists to London on a weekend, once again making productions as accessible as possible. The theatre’s biggest success of the year came from Alan Bennett in his new play The History Boys. Premiering at the Lyttleton Theatre, the play starred Richard Griffiths and Francis de la Tour as two school teachers in a northern grammar school, preparing a group of history students to take their Oxbridge entrance exams. The simplicity of the piece, directed by Hytner, allowed Bennett’s witty lines and well observed characterisation to develop and play on an audience’s minds. The production played to sell out houses, and was extended multiple times, before embarking on a national and international tour, as well as a movie adaptation starring the original cast.
Over at the Old Vic Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey took on the role of Artistic Director with an aim to ‘injecting life into the British Theatre Industry’. Spacey wanted to bring British and American acting talent to the stage in collaborative ventures, promising to take to the stage himself and bring in ‘big talent’. Taking up the post for an initial ten year period, his first production opened in September, and was the British premiere of the play Cloaca by Maria Goos, which he directed and was met with lukewarm reviews.
Further afield, the world famous Hackney Empire reopened its doors after a three year renovation dark period. The restoration included a 60 seat orchestra pit which would allow the venue to play host to large touring opera and ballet companies, as well as a larger fly tower, studio theatre, hospitality areas and dressing room renovation. The London Coliseum, home to the ENO, also reopened boasting the largest proscenium arch in London, and was home to the Royal Variety Performance 2004 with the Prince of Wales in attendance.
Things were shaken up over on Shaftesbury Avenue as the long running musical sensation Les Miserables moved from the beautiful Palace Theatre to the Queen’s Theatre further down Shaftesbury Avenue. The production stayed the same despite the new surroundings, and ticket advances confirmed that the show would stay open, unlike the Broadway production which had closed the year before. The Palace Theatre was therefore free to welcome Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical The Woman in White based on the epic Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins. Featuring a haunting score and talented cast which included Maria Friedman and Michael Crawford, the show received mainly negative reviews with many commenting on the over reliance of 3D projections to create the multiple sets. Michael Crawford became ill during the run due to the physical demands of his role, and was succeeded by Michael Ball, who donned the fat suit and played an effective Count Fosco. The show managed 19 months, closing in 2006 after a failed Broadway transfer.
The biggest musical news of the year came from producer Cameron Mackintosh, who launched a brand new stage production of Disney’s film musical Mary Poppins. After an out of town tryout in Bristol, the show opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in December to mainly positive reviews. The show sparked some controversy early on as it was deemed only suitable for children over seven, due to the dark and scary elements that had been added to the book and score. The show featured songs from the film, alongside new material written by British duo Stiles and Drewe, who created new arrangements of songs and breathed new life into the well known score. Laura Michelle Kelly opened as the ‘practically perfect’ nanny, going on to win the Olivier Award for Best Actress the following year. Some incredible designs by Bob Crowley and impressive choreography from Matthew Bourne made the show the hot ticket of the season.
Other openings included a new musical based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned which was directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood. Opening at the Lyric Theatre in April, the show staggered through the summer season, closing in September due to bad reviews and a miserable advance. In an effort to spark up sales at the London Palladium, Jason Donovan joined the show as Caractacus Potts.