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.
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.
It's an enjoyable show put together by two Englishmen, Alan Janes (book) and Rob Bettinson (director), who were motivated primarily by their love for the music of Buddy Holly. I found the simple tribute affecting both times I saw it (yes, it's that good - and I didn't even like Buddy Holly music beforehand).
Virtually the entire audience, ranging from the very young to the middle-aged young-at-heart were, by the end, spontaneously on their feet rocking out to the exhilaratingly executed rhythms and clamoring for encores. I have yet to see a group of people, spanning the generations, made so happy by a piece of theater.
There are also a healthy number of more subdued new works doing well here at the moment.
``Shadowlands,'' by William Nicholson, for example, at the Queens Theater, is a thoughtful and intelligent account of the real-life relationship between British writer C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, an American woman whom Lewis eventually married.
The play centers on Lewis, a kindly man but one who is profoundly awkward with women. Ironically, his awkwardness dissipates only when Joy, with whom he has had a long, touching friendship, is stricken by illness. Feeling both ecstatic fulfillment and acute misery at the prospect that his new-found happiness may soon be snatched away, Lewis, though a committed Christian, finds himself questioning his faith and the nature of God. Shortly afterward, Joy dies.
HER son, Douglas, by a previous marriage, recently wrote of ``Shadowlands'' that it ``comes closer to the truth'' about his mother and stepfather than anything else previously written and further praises it for bringing out an essential point: that Joy's death taught Lewis ``something he had yet to learn; that in the very deepest despair there is hope and when, by grief, the entire universe is suddenly emptied, there is God.''
Much-loved British actor Nigel Hawthorne (Lewis) is, by turns, both endearingly droll and moving, while Tony Award-winning American actress Jane Alexander (Joy) provides an inspired match. Americans will be able to catch the two in ``Shadowlands'' when it opens at New York's Brooks Atkinson Theater on Nov. 11.
These days the nature of God and faith is topical. Another new work, ``Racing Demons,'' by highly acclaimed British playwright David Hare - in repertoire at the Royal National Theater (RNT) - also has that subject at its heart. The show, which snapped up this year's Olivier Award for Best Play of the Year, takes a shrewd look at the Church of England today, juxtaposing its staid, diminishing appeal with the evangelical movement's more dynamic method of drawing in the masses. Neither is left unscathed. Various styles of Christian conviction are explored with perspicacious humor and insight. Richard Eyre, the RNT's artistic chief, directs this small gem, with perfect precision.
Undoubtedly, the predominant trend in British drama today is toward exploring larger social issues. Hare's play, rather than being personally introspective - which is more the American style - does just this. ``Man of the Moment,'' at the Globe Theater, from the prolific pen of Alan Ayckbourn (who also directs), is another apt example.
AYCKBOURN has long been the king of British stage comedy, but his works are gradually developing a darker edge. In this vein, ``Man of the Moment'' is perhaps his most artistically successful play to date. It deals with two men whose paths crossed many years earlier - one a quondam bank robber, the other a momentary hero who thwarted the gun-wielding crook in action.
They come face-to-face for a second time for the sake of a TV special. Over the years, the ex-robber has become a prosperous media star, while the other man, of touchingly humble character and means, has been swallowed up by obscurity. The play gradually unfolds as an ingenious expos'e of today's TV-fashioned values in which people, sometimes of questionable character can become rich and famous because they project engaging media personalities, while others who are inherently good and kind often go unrewarded. ``Man of the Moment'' is a deeply funny, but, ultimately, rather disturbing work.
As for noteworthy classic revivals, the RNT has two glittering offerings: ``Richard III,'' starring Ian McKellen, and ``King Lear,'' both currently on a worldwide tour., using the same cast with, in the latter, the formidable Brian Cox filling the title role The shows provide bold interpretations, particularly so in ``Richard III,'' where the production takes on a modern fascist flavor. McKellen is in peak form.
But the cachet of the most exciting actor in the West End right now must surely go to Derek Jacobi in Sartre's ``Kean.'' His coruscating wit, verve, and breathtaking versatility in this deft comedy based on the lovelorn life of flamboyant 19th-century English thespian Edmund Kean is well worth beating a track to the Old Vic Theater for. If any performance deserves to be Broadway-bound, it is this.