Heavyweight drama and heavyweight musicals is the name of the game for February, as ‘Jerusalem’ playwright Jez Butterworth goes straight into the West End with his new play ‘The Hills of California’ and ‘Doctor Who’ star Matt Smith returns in English language premiere of a massively hip Ibsen production. Or if song and dance is more your thing, take a trip into the Underworld with the triumphant return of ‘Hadestown’.
With 2009’s peerless ‘Jerusalem’, Jez Butterworth sort of transcended the world of mortal playwrights; he feels less like somebody who is part of the regular system, more a mysterious being who reappears at intervals throughout our history. ‘The Hills of California’ is his first play since 2017 and we know relatively little about it, other than that it’s set in Blackpool during the sweltering summer of 1976, where the Webb sisters have gathered at their family’s titular guesthouse to say goodbye to their ailing mother. Sam Mendes directs a superb cast of Laura Donnelly, Leanne Best, Ophelia Lovibond and Helena Wilson.
Harold Pinter Theatre, until Jun 15. Book tickets here.
Europhile theatre lovers will have heard of German director Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s visionary play about a small town divided by its response to an environmental disaster. In it, the action breaks down partway through for a town hall-style debate on the issues raised that fully incorporates the audience. A cult hit in Berlin, it’s toured to the Barbican in German, but now makes its English language debut in the West End, with Doctor Who legend Matt Smith starring as the play’s cantankerous protagonist Dr Stockmann.
Duke of York’s Theatre, Feb 6-Apr 6. Book tickets here.
You may well be familiar with the name ‘Hadestown’: it’s the stage version of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s cult hit concept album from 2010, which turned the Orpheus myth into a modern song cycle. Rachel Chavkin’s production also played an acclaimed season at the National Theatre back in 2018, on its way to Broadway, where it’s still running today – but only now is it finally settling in for a full West End run. Following Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld and his encounters with numerous eccentric deities, you’ll have a hell – or should that be Hades? – of a time.
Lyric Theatre, Feb 10-Dec 22. Book tickets here.
Eagle-eyed observers may notice that ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was our top January recommendation – to be honest, the Sarah Snook from ‘Succession’-starring adaptation of Wilde’s horror story had its dates delayed and the PR didn’t send us a press release about it. But it still looks great!
Haymarket Theatre Royal, Feb 6-May 11.
High off the success of ‘The Witches’ at the National, it’s time for something completely different from playwright Lucy Prebble. ‘The Human Body’ is a drama about the early days of the NHS, which stars Keeley Hawes as a GP charged with implementing Nye Bevan’s reforms, and Jack Davenport as George, a dashing figure from her past. It’s directed by Michael Longhurst: his last show for the Donmar, which he’s leaving this year.
Donmar Warehouse, Feb 16-Apr 13.
6. King Lear
Yaël Farber’s Saoirse Ronan-starring 2021 ‘Macbeth’ was a doomy triumph, and now the South African director returns to the Almeida to tackle Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. Given Farber’s penchant for ponderously magnificent atmospherics, we’ll be lucky if this thing comes in under four hours, but it should be a good ’un, with the well-respected actor Danny Sapiani getting a deserved crack at the ailing monarch.
Almeida Theatre, Feb 8-Mar 30.
7. The Big Life
Theatre Royal Stratford East scored a big hit 20 years ago with this ska musical, which joyously transposed the story of Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ – four lads swear off women and booze, basically – to a yarn about a group of young men and women freshly arrived to London on the Windrush. This first major revival should be a treat.
Theatre Royal Stratford East, Feb 16-Mar 30.
With a cast headed by the great Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma and its staging in a succession of warehouses, Simon Godwin’s production of ‘Macbeth’ looks great on paper. Reviews from its premiere in Liverpool were pretty tepid, alas, but by the time it opens in London it’ll have had months to warm up, a luxury we don’t tend to get in the capital.
Dock X, Feb 10-Mar 23.
This dark comedy by Marius von Mayenburg – huge in his native Germany, a cult figure at best over here – sounds intriguing, concerning a couple who discover a painting by Hitler in their attic and can’t agree what to do with it. But it’s the cast that makes Patrick Marber’s production truly appealing, with Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jane Horrocks, John Heffernan, Angus Wright and Jenna Augen starring.
Young Vic, Feb 20-Apr 20. Buy tickets here.