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London theater heats up for record-breaking summer

LONDON'S theaterland is bracing itself for the boom. Predictions are that this summer will be a record-breaking one. The exceptionally low pound promises to bring droves of American visitors to Britain. And West End theaters -- which depend heavily on the transatlantic tourist trade -- are expecting a high proportion of them in box office queues from now through September.

Indeed, according to a recent survey, some 70 percent of Americans visiting this country say going to the theater is first on their list of things to do. And with the top ticket price of 15 ($19), compared with well over double that figure on Broadway, British theater is certainly a bargain.

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But there's more to it than that. The theater world here has a newfound confidence. Buoyed by a rapid succession of successful Broadway transfers, the West End is enjoying a flurry of activity unprecedented in recent years. A few figures tell the tale best. Out of a total of 47 West End theaters, 46 are now open; little more than three years ago only 28 were doing business. Added to this, overall theater attendance has risen 13 percent in the last 12 months. And the trend is steadily upward.

So what's on offer?

Lots of variety, for starters -- with an ever-so-slight shift toward more serious fare.

You can see it in what's capturing the limelight. Whereas Andrew Lloyd Webber's roller-skating extravaganza, ``Starlight Express,'' was the talking point of the previous summer season, this year it's a far more earnest work, ``The Mysteries.'' ``Starlight Express'' is a very silly saga about the trials and travails of being a train; ``The Mysteries'' [reviewed last Thursday] is an exquisitely updated medieval rendering of the story of the world, from Creation through to Judgment Day.

But the shift is evident elsewhere. The list of what's new shows an emphasis on drama rather than comedy. Moreover, even among the comedies the mode is increasingly humor with a sharp edge.

Certainly the last 18 months have brought to London a clutch of fluffy American musicals (``Little Shop of Horrors,'' ``42nd Street,'' ``On Your Toes,'' and ``Pump Boys and Dinettes''), all of which are still going strong. But among the very latest productions, there is only one in that category: a revival of ``Guys and Dolls.'' Clearly the fun-for-its-own-sake trend is on the wane.

Indeed, even musicals are taking on a more serious tone. Following in the wake of ``Jean Seberg'' and ``The Hired Man,'' this season's only brand-new musical -- ``Mutiny!,'' which is premi`ering early this month -- promises to be equally sober. The score is by pop star David Essex, while the book and lyrics are by National Theater (NT) dramatist Richard Crane. Centered on the legend of the mutiny on the Bounty, it's said to be a well-researched rendering of the period. And with Essex in the role of Fletcher Christian, and Frank Finlay, one of Britain's most esteemed actors, as Captain Bligh, ``Mutiny!'' is guaranteed to attract a lot of attention. Tickets are already being sold well into 1986.

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This summer also brings to the London stage a sprinkling of international stars: Deborah Kerr in Emlyn Williams's ``The Corn Is Green'' and Lauren Bacall in Tennessee Williams's ``Sweet Bird of Youth,'' both of whom are proving popular with audiences. Then there's Alan Bates in a windy revival of Michael Byrne's ``Dance of Death.''

But perhaps the most memorable star performance so far this season, or indeed this year, is given by Anthony Hopkins in ``Pravda,'' a new play written by David Hare (``Plenty'') and Howard Brenton. In repertoire at the NT complex, ``Pravda'' takes an acerbic look at the state of the British press, with Hopkins portraying a Rupert Murdoch-type character. Although the play itself is very uneven (less sledgehammer and more subtlety would have helped enormously), it's an interesting glimpse into how the British see themselves.

Which brings to mind a good point: Americans have a tendency to think British theater can do no wrong. Not so. Even the world-renowned NT and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have their share of misses as well as hits.

Other questionable productions this season include the RSC's ``Breaking the Silence,'' by Stephen Poliakoff, and ``Today,'' by Robert Holman.

Much is being made of these. Both were specially commissioned by the company and written by two of Britain's leading young playwrights. The former is about a Russian family during the Revolution and its fall from material comfort and eventual exile, while the latter is a rambling, disjointed look at the life of a young socialist intellectual during the between-the-war years. Excellent acting. Faultless staging. But the plays themselves suffer from a lack of dramatic direction: Both promise import that never pans out.

The overall lack of good new writing is, in fact, something of a sore point here. But the RSC will be trying again in July with the premi`ere of ``Red Noses,'' by Peter Barnes (``The Ruling Class''), a story set in 14th-century France during the Black Death. Directed by Terry Hands -- fresh from his highly acclaimed American tour with ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and ``Cyrano de Bergerac'' -- the play is already generating a lot of interest.

Thus, much of the best theater this season is really to be found among the many revivals, which isn't as uninspired as it sounds. On the contrary. There's the exciting development of a small actor-run ensemble being formed within the larger NT company; this group, led by Edward Petherbridge (just back from his Broadway triumph in ``Strange Interlude'') and Ian McKellen, will be putting together an ambitious series of revivals at the NT complex, kicking off with ``The Duchess of Malfi'' later this month.

In the meantime, on stage there is already a small gem of a revival, ``Martine,'' by Jean-Jacques Bernard, first performed in Paris in 1922 and newly translated by novelist John Fowles. ``Martine'' is a simple but beautiful and well-observed story built around an ill-fated romance between a French peasant girl and an upper-class Parisian soldier just home from the Great War. The play was said, in its day, to mark the turning point in French drama from banality to art. It is superbly directed by the NT's supremo, Sir Peter Hall. It's not to be missed.

Also not to be missed are the RSC's latest offerings of ``Richard III'' and ``Henry V,'' both in repertoire at the Barbican, the company's London home. Anthony Sher's portrayal of Richard has been hailed by many as the best since Laurence Olivier, while 24-year-old Kenneth Branagh creates a Henry that surely places him in the top rank of British stage actors today.

In fact, as far as Shakespeare is concerned this summer, it's hard to go wrong.

And the Bard is everywhere. There's Roger Rees in ``Hamlet,'' also at the Barbican, or Ian McKellen in ``Coriolanus,'' on the NT's main stage; or you can take your Shakespeare in the open air with two new productions -- ``Twelfth Night'' and ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' -- in London's Regent's Park.

Traveling farther afield, Stratford offers ``The Merry Wives of Windsor,'' ``Troilus and Cressida,'' and ``As You Like It,'' while the famous Chichester Festival Theatre features ``Antony and Cleopatra,'' starring Diana Rigg.

Also at the Chichester this season are Edward Fox in ``The Philanthropist'' and Donald Sinden in ``The Scarlet Pimpernel'' -- not to be overlooked.

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