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London Theater Bounces Back

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

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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'').

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