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London Theater Bounces Back

Strong productions - and box office - offer a buoyant response to sagging state subsidies. THEATER

By Linda JoffeeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 1990


THE London stage is surely one of the more amazing success stories of the late 20th century. On the debit side, a dwindling government arts subsidy means one of the English-speaking world's most renowned drama troupes, the Royal Shakespeare Company, is being forced to close its London home for four months, beginning in November, in an effort to get out of the red. The Royal Court Theater, a familiar bastion of avant-garde drama, and the Young Vic Theater, dedicated for decades to providing high-quality drama by and for young people - Richard Gere is among its early actors - are also in trouble from a shortfall of cash.

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Yet there is a palpably defiant air in London's theaterland. For example, many well-known British thespians, including Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier) and Dame Judi Dench, have been volunteering their time and talents to help raise funds for the Royal Court and Young Vic. There's a general expectation that the latter will be saved from closure by a celebrity benefit week, in late October.

The really good news, though, is that the theater scene generally remains remarkably buoyant. Following an earlier slump, there has been in the last five years an upward climb in box-office. It helps counterbalance the blues over the decrease in state support and helps assure a flow of shows.

Numbers tell the tale best: Right now, out of 49 theaters, an astonishing 48 either have productions going or are mounting new ones. West End lights have been ablaze in recent months with the names of stars - Peter O'Toole, Glenda Jackson, Richard Harris - who could undoubtedly receive more money elsewhere.

Joan Collins has been willing to drop a few zeros off her usual paycheck to appear in a current incarnation of Noel Coward's ``Private Lives,'' at the Aldwych Theater.

The genre that's most vibrant is musical theater, with 14? musicals in the West End at the moment and several on the way. The trend has been given a further boost by mega-successful producer Cameron Mackintosh (``Cats,'' ``Les Mis'erables,'' ``Miss Saigon'').

This year, thanks to cash from Mr. Mackintosh, Oxford University has created a top professorial post for musical-stage studies, currently filled by Broadway's Stephen Sondheim. And Mackintosh has recently donated an unprecedented 1 million pounds (about $1.9 million) to Britain's Royal National Theater, for the sole purpose of helping to revive musicals from the past.

The musicals ``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express,'' ``Me and My Girl,'' ``Les Mis'erables,'' and ``Phantom of the Opera'' are still going strong. But the newer blockbusters, ``Aspects of Love'' and ``Miss Saigon,'' are the town's hot tickets.

THERE are also some surprises - not least because they prove musical hits don't have to be costly. ``Return to the Forbidden Planet,'' for instance, at the Cambridge Theater, was this year's dark horse winner at the Olivier Awards (the West End's equivalent to Broadway's Tony Awards) for best musical. The production wouldn't have been my choice for the accolade, but it does have a certain offbeat appeal.

Based on the premise of ``Shakespeare's forgotten rock-and-roll masterpiece,'' it loosely (very loosely) draws from the plot of ``The Tempest'' to tell the story of Captain Tempest, a spaceship crew, and Dr. Prospero, a scientist. who has invented a sci-fi formula that will ``change the world.''

The plot, however, is incidental. The real purpose of the exercise is to entertain audiences with various bastardized one-liners lifted from the Bard and with the antics of such off-the-wall characters as a trombone-and-drum-playing robot on rollerskates.

At any conceivably suggestive lead-in - as when, for example, the spaceship is being threatened by asteroids and the crew breaks into ``Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire,'' the show instantly transmogrifies into a rock concert, with many rousing renditions of old pop songs. Even the most cynical theatergoer can't help but smile.

The best musical for my money is ``Buddy,'' at the Victoria Palace. It's doing so well that a Broadway opening is being planned for the Shubert Theater Nov. 4.

``Buddy'' is the story of '50s rocker Buddy Holly, from his arrival on the music scene to his untimely death in 1959.

BRITISHER Billy Geraghty plays Holly with an infectious charm and uncanny likeness, particularly when he is performing the old songs live on stage. (American actor Paul Hipp, who created the part here to much acclaim, will be heading the Broadway production.)

There are also show-stopping performances from Gareth Marks as the Big Bopper, Enzo Squillino Jr. as Ritchie Valens, and David Bardsley and David Howarth, who lend superb support as the Crickets.