Back at the turn of the 17th century, London's first theaters were built on the Bankside, an area on the south bank of the Thames, close to the London Bridge, but far from the direct attack of those clucking, puritanical authorities. Audiences were filled with both the rich and famous (people like Queen Elizabeth I) and the average commoner, who merely managed to afford the price of an admission ticket. Maybe they'd catch the latest plays by Shakespeare , Marlowe, or Jonson. . . .
Last month it was the production of ''Cats'' that was all the rage in London. Every tourist, like myself, who came to town to take in some theater was practically willing to borrow against his or her passport to get tickets to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical variation on the themes of T. S. Eliot. On my first night in London I refused to accept ''Sorry, sold out,'' and tracked down two tickets for ''Cats'' at Edwards & Edwards, a ticket agency located at the Palace Theater. This is apparently the only agency in town to have made a pre-production deal guaranteeing them tickets for the run of the show.
Having tucked the ''Cats'' stub under my belt, I then felt free to be selective, to make choices based on personal taste. In London, tourists visit year round just to soak up the city's dramatic dialogue, laugh over a comedy's song and dance, or maybe even subject their worn-out sensibilities to a little shake-up. There is no perfect line-up of must-see shows; my objective was to sit through as many plays as humanly possible in five days including one Sunday.
London's theater is playing all over town, except on the Bankside, which is now an industrial park. Massive, modern complexes like the National Theater and the recently opened Barbican Center boast lavish, nationally subsidized productions of a perpetually changing repertoire; they also house the National Theater Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively.
In the West End more than 30 theaters continue to thrive, and now that Covent Garden has been renovated into a fashionable boutique-and-restaurant emporium, I considered wandering from one boutique to the next, an event almost worth skipping a matinee to enjoy. The Royal Opera House maintains an illustrious schedule of ballets and operas. And then there are always those shows in the Fringe, the London version of Off Broadway. For Fringe listings, buy a magazine called Time Out; look particularly at whatever is running at the Lyric Theater in Hammersmith - many of the plays that start here end up successfully in the West End.
Forgetting, for a moment, the merits of the playwrights and the actors, what many of London's newest theaters feature is state-of-the-art technology behind their proverbial proscenium arch. Even if you don't see a production at the National Theaters, do take an hour-and-a-half tour ''behind the scenes.'' At the National's Olivier Theater, the neon set alone for the ''Guys and Dolls'' musical is so stupendous that one can't imagine foreigners in the audience really needing those little radio ear pieces available for the simultaneous translation.
At the National's Lyttelton, for the current production, ''Way Up Stream,'' a tank was built on stage to hold a cabin cruiser and 18 inches of dyed-blue water. Because this water is drained between shows, on the backstage tour you see at the bottom of this synthetic lake the tracks that enable the small boat to revolve and slide from scene to scene. And, in the National's Cottesloe, while this theater may look like an Elizabethan inn yard stage, it can be easily transformed to a facility for Fringe productions. When all 265 seats are unbolted and removed, the director can then turn the pit into one big space, so the audience and the actors can interact.
In contrast to all this modern advancement stands the steeped-in-tradition Drury Lane Theater in the West End. The present building dates back to 1812; it's the fourth on the site since the theater was founded in 1662. In 1741 ''God Save the King'' was first sung here, but then in the early 1800s King George III accosted his son, the prince regent, in the lobby, and there's been a ''King's Side'' and a ''Prince's Side'' ever since. Sometimes seats in the royal boxes are sold to us commoners when the house is nearly sold out. Currently, this happens fairly frequently; ''The Pirates of Penzance'' is enjoying considerable popularity at the Drury Lane Theater.
Even the most avid theatergoers sometimes need to catch their breaths, or simply mull over that last melodrama, before charging over to a light-hearted comedy. In the Barbican Center, the Art Gallery and the Museum of London are nearby, just right for a change of pace. Stroll about the Barbican Center itself; it is an amazing triumph of modern architecture. This project has been in the works ever since World War II left the surrounding area devastated. Look for the lovely details that soften this vast concrete development: the grass growing over the covered parking lot, the gentle landscaping around the remnants of the ancient London Wall.
If it's a traditional afternoon tea you're looking for, two of my favorites in the West End are the Savoy and the Waldorf Hotels. The Savoy's Thames Foyer is where once Caruso sang, Pavlova danced, and George Gershwin played ''Rhapsody in Blue.'' Now, there's either a pianist or a harpist performing in the center-room pavilion, maintaining the tradition of music to munch tea sandwiches by in the Savoy, daily from 3:30 to 5:45 p.m. I recommend taking tea here before heading to the art deco Savoy Theater, to see the marvelous escapist comedy ''Noises Off.'' If you prefer a waltz between your scones, at the Palm Court of the Waldorf Hotel there's tea dancing to a string quartet on Fridays from 3:30 to 6:30. You will need to book several days in advance.
To know what's playing in London, visitors should procure the complete list - with the exception of the Fringe; the British Tourist Authority (680 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019) has copies. The truly useful thing about this guide is its inclusion of theater telephone numbers. In these days of computer and satellite communications, no one need be without the theater seat of his or her choice. With a credit card in hand, anyone can pick up the long-distance telephone and reserve admission to a popular production. Theater tickets range from (STR)3 to (STR)11.50 (about $5 to $19). There are frequently last-minute cancellations, so no one need despair if tickets seem at first difficult to come by.
For those who prefer to sign up for a complete package deal, including theater tickets, British Airways offers the longest list of options. All of its week-long trips include vouchers redeemable for three tickets to the buyer's choice of plays and musicals. One line-up of British Airways theater trips to London may appeal to those with a secondary interest, such as eating ''like a king'' in choice restaurants all over town. The ground package price ranges from
For the budget-conscious, London has The Half-Price Ticket Booth at Leicester Square. On the day of a performance discounted matinee tickets go on sale from 12 to 2:30 p.m., and from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Evening tickets are available for an average of 20 productions.In the United States another way to purchase tickets before departure is to call the New York-London ticket agency of Edwards & Edwards. The toll-free number is 800-223-6108; in New York state call 211-944- 0290. The surcharge for this service is $5, plus another 25 percent of the price of the ticket, which goes to the Society of West End Theater.