LONDON THEATER. Thriving against current odds

THE London stage is in a curious state. It should be in the doldrums, because: Cash for the arts has become increasingly tight, because of cuts in government subsidy.

American tourists, who have traditionally made up by far the largest portion of overseas theatergoers, have been coming in fewer numbers because of the relative strength of the pound.

An ambitious, much-lauded plan to revamp the structure of British theater, based on an exhaustive study known as the Cork Report, lies dormant through lack of investment.

And yet the world's theater capital is bustling. While no box office figures are yet available, 41 West End theaters have shows on the boards (a figure similar to last summer), with the prospect of nearly a dozen new productions opening over the coming weeks, usually London's quietest launching time. Theater producers, it seems, are simply trying that much harder to come up with commercially viable products.

So what are they presenting?

There are the Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganzas - ``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express,'' and ``Phantom of the Opera'' - blazing ever onward, while ``Les Mis'erables,'' the international record-breaking musical moneymaker, and Stephen Sondheim's heavily reworked ``Follies'' continue to do well.

Less successfully, a lot of Stateside showmanship has gone into the world premi`ere of ``Ziegfeld'' at the London Palladium, a British production costing more than $5.4 million, a huge sum by London standards. The production, devised and directed by Broadway's Joe Layton, originally starred American actor Len Cariou in the title role of this loosely biographical depiction of the flamboyant stage impresario, Flo Ziegfeld. More recently, following a well-deserved mauling by the British critics, the show has received a massive overhaul - including the arrival of Israel's Topol to replace Cariou, giving the production a much-needed injection of charisma. Considerably improved, but a ``Les Mis'erables'' it isn't.

Among the many nonmusical revivals is J.M. Barrie's ``The Admirable Crichton,'' at the Haymarket Theatre Royal, noteworthy largely for bringing octogenarian Rex Harrison back to the London stage. The drama tells the story of Lord Loam (Harrison) and his family, who are shipwrecked on an island for two years with their butler (superbly played by Edward Fox) and a girl servant. The laws of natural selection come into play in the new environment, causing a radical reordering of the social hierarchy. Whimsical with a serious strain, the show is said to have caused quite an uproar when first produced in 1902. With no attempt at being ``relevant'' to the Britain of today, this production is nevertheless intelligently crafted, while Harrison's characteristic upper-crust shuffling and consummately timed asides are a joy to watch.

Chekhov fans, meanwhile, are reveling in the more meaty fare of ``Uncle Vanya,'' at the Vaudeville Theatre. Using an exciting new translation by Michael Frayn, the production draws together some of the finest of British talent. Of particular note is Michael Gambon (who recently walked away with most of the 1988 drama awards for stage and TV) in the title role. This is a sparkling, eminently truthful rendition of the play that makes one laugh, snivel a bit, and think.

As always, Shakespeare gets good treatment in several quarters. At the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall brings his 15-year artistic leadership to a close by directing, as a trilogy, ``Cymbeline,'' ``The Winter's Tale,'' and ``The Tempest.'' Hall has long been noted for his superlative skills in handling the Bard, and these current offerings don't disappoint.

Over at the Barbican, the London headquarters of the Royal Shakespeare Company, recent Shakespearean productions have been less even. That said, the current staging of ``The Merchant of Venice'' is definitely a winner, largely because of the magnetic presence of Anthony Sher (who was much lauded for his playing in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare's ``Richard III'' a few years ago) as Shylock. The company also has a hit on its hands with ``Titus Andronicus.'' This gory tale of revenge, butchery, and cannibalism set in ancient Rome has not been softened one iota for the faint of heart; for those who can take it, however, it is a powerful production.

Further vivid staging is to be had over at the Old Vic in Jonathan Miller's production of a rarely performed Jacobean work, ``Bussy D'Ambois,'' by George Chapman. Dr. Miller, artistic director of this venerated theater since January, has been trying, in a brave experiment, to excite the discerning theatergoer by mounting the kind of obscure works one wouldn't expect to find in the West End.

He succeeds hugely with this stirring production of seduction and swashbuckling intrigue. David Threlfall (Smike in the original stage version of ``Nicholas Nickleby'') is riveting in the title role as an errant French soldier who wangles and woos his way into the corrupt court of Henry III.

More genteel entertainment can be found at the Apollo Theatre with the London premi`ere of America's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winner, ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' by Alfred Uhry, starring Dame Wendy Hiller and Clarke Peters, both of whom give topnotch performances.

As for brand-new British products, there are only two major ones at the moment, an indisputable sign that, below all the bustling, London's theaterland is playing it safe, owing to the current cash crunch.

Most notably, ``Hapgood,'' Tom Stoppard's first play in over six years, premi`ered at the Aldwych Theatre last spring. Yet despite an excellent cast, led by Roger Rees and Felicity Kendall, and the almost guaranteed pull of the Stoppard name, eagerly waiting British critics were decidedly cool when it opened, and dwindling audiences are causing it to close shortly.

The problem lies in the play itself. ``Hapgood,'' which interweaves international espionage and quantum physics, contains some clever one-liners, but the plot is nearly impenetrable, the main thesis being that, as in laws of particle physics, the very act of observing alters what we see. Unfortunately, the entire effort gives the impression of a playwright who had a great idea, to which everything else was subordinated.

A more straightforward work and the West End's biggest crowd-pleaser right now is unquestionably ``Lettice and Lovage,'' by Peter Shaffer (``Equus,'' ``Amadeus''), starring Maggie Smith. Although far from the playwright's best, the production at the Globe Theatre is made to work by Ms. Smith as Lettice Douffet, a rather rococo woman with a histrionic bent (kink might be the better word). This isn't surprising, since the part was written expressly to make use of Smith's quirky comedic talents.

Lettice starts out as a tour guide at a crumbling English stately home. The place is utterly devoid of interest - except perhaps to a pack of termites. But Lettice changes all that with the free flight of her imagination.

The story evolves into a rambling, lighthearted essay with a serious edge, deploring the gray Britain of today in favor of its more rubicund past.

Despite a dire need for the scissors, particularly in the final act, the show is nevertheless Broadway-bound - fortunately with Smith at the helm - sometime next spring.

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