The Entertainers

British theater is not all knights and dames. Theater critic Michael Billington handicaps the best young talent (and where to find it) this season.

A new generation of actors, writers, and directors has come to the forefront of British theater, and many of its brightest stars will be on view in and around London this fall. Sam Mendes ends his terrific ten-year tenure as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse with an ambitious repertory teaming of Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya: Simon Russell Beale, a prince among actors whose portfolio includes Hamlet and Richard III, doubles as Malvolio and Vanya, while Emily Watson (the willful Elsie in Gosford Park) appears as Viola and Sonya in the hottest ticket in town (Vanya runs through November 20; Twelfth Night runs October 11-November 30). At the National Theatre, Owen Teale, who won a Tony on Broadway for his sexy Torvald in Ibsen's A Doll's House, plays the title role in Chekhov's Ivanov (through October 12). And his director, Katie Mitchell, is herself a sought-after name (a graduate of the Royal Shakespeare Company) who has worked her way through the classics, including Ibsen's Ghosts with Russell Beale.

In the West End, too, the old order changeth. Two former alternative comedians, the lanky Sean Foley and the saucer-eyed Hamish McColl, return to Wyndham's Theatre with a second season of their Olivier Award-winning The Play What I Wrote (opens November 5), a delirious tribute to a famous British comic duo, Morecambe and Wise, that features different guest stars every night (past interlopers have included Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor); it's headed to Broadway in the spring. The esteemed playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose latest comic trilogy, Damsels in Distress, is currently at the Duchess Theatre, is a great promoter of young talent, and one of his protégés, Tim Firth, is the author of a big new West End musical, Our House, which deals with the alternative fates facing the scapegrace hero after he commits a petty crime (opens October 21 at the Cambridge Theatre). The score is taken from the greatest hits of the eighties pop group Madness, and the direction is by Matthew Warchus, one of the Young Turks of British theater responsible for Art, True West, and Follies on Broadway.

Like Ayckbourn, Andrew Lloyd Webber also has an eye to the future. As producer of Bombay Dreams, a lavish musical composed by newcomer A.R. Rahman that contrasts Bollywood cinematic fantasy with Bombay reality, Lord Lloyd Webber hopes to get "a whole new generation thinking it would be cool to compose for the theater." In this hit show (at the Apollo Victoria Theatre) about the struggle of youth against age, the female lead is played by the beautiful 22-year-old Preeya Kalidas: a product of the newly confident, young British-Asian generation and a symbol of the radical changes overtaking London theaterland. Youth isn't just knocking at the door: It's being duly served at center stage.