Good Show Upstaged: In London, little theaters go a long way toward outproducing the famed West End.

February 18, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

LONDON -- London's glitzy West End is no longer the heart of British theater. Sure, it has the blockbusters with helicopters, crashing chandeliers and choruses of singing cats -- you know, the same megamusicals that are on Broadway.

But when it comes to the long-standing British theatrical tradition of challenging performances and drama, the nonprofit and smaller companies -- like our regional and off-Broadway theaters -- are where the exciting risks are being taken and met.

Consider, for instance, the thrill of seeing Fiona Shaw, the current femme phenomenon of the British stage, playing two leads in repertory at the Royal National Theatre -- quick-witted Mistress Millamant in "The Way of the World" and the title role in a gender-bending "Richard II."

Or, the world premiere of socially conscious playwright Stephen Poliakoff's psychological thriller "Sweet Panic," about a child psychologist stalked by the mother of a client. Or, the chance to see a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," directed by Sam Mendes, the hottest young British director, and starring the first black actor to play a male lead in a major Sondheim production.

Compare that to what's showing on the commercial West End, whose status as London's theatrical hub has been diminishing at an accelerating rate over the past decade. Instead of the multilayered "Richard II," there's the Shakespearean appetizer, "The Shakespeare Revue" -- though even that originated at a nonprofit theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company. An anthology of material liberally looted from sources including Monty Python and Cole Porter, and performed by four perky singers and a pianist, the show is Bard Lite but Brite.

Then there's "Sunset Boulevard," "Cats" -- which, at 15 years and counting, just became the world's longest-running musical -- "Miss Saigon," "The Phantom of the Opera," etc., etc. In other words, the West End is overflowing with shows you don't have to go abroad to see -- shows, for the most part, that are better at chalking up record-breaking runs than at breaking new theatrical ground. (Sound like Broadway?)

Allegiance of playwrights

Ground-breaking productions are precisely what the smaller and nonprofit companies do best. That's one reason several have won the allegiances of leading British playwrights, such as David Hare at the National and Harold Pinter at the Almeida. Nor does a production at one of these theaters stand in the way of a further life in the United States. Both Hare's "Racing Demon" and Pinter's "Moonlight" were produced in New York earlier this season.

In contrast to the blockbusters in their fancy West End playhouses, several of the adventuresome shows seen during a recent London theatergoing expedition were in venues with fewer than 300 seats. Several were staged by subsidized companies. And, many have been nominated for Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of Broadway's Tonys. Between them, "Company, "The Way of the World" and "Richard II" have been nominated for nine Oliviers. (The winners will be announced today.)

Unlike the Tonys, which can make or break a show, the Oliviers -- voted on by members of the public as well as independent professionals -- don't have much box office impact. There's a lesson here, since many a worthy Broadway production has gone by the wayside immediately after an unsuccessful Tony bid.

Of all of Britain's theaters, the one that is the most prestigious these days is the National. Its influence is even apparent in this country where two of the National's recent hits, "An Inspector Calls" and "Carousel," transferred to Broadway and are now on national tours included in the current seasons of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and the Lyric Opera House.

Admittedly, a truly representative national theater -- subsidized by the government and showcasing the nation's best actors in re-thought revivals and cutting-edge new plays -- is a difficult goal in a country considerably larger and more diverse than Britain.

Still, efforts to establish just such a theater have been bandied about at New York's Lincoln Center and tried at Washington's Kennedy Center -- where Peter Sellers' daring American National Theater faltered after two seasons in the mid-1980s. (Though Tony Randall calls his company the National Actors Theatre, it is more of a nonprofit troupe presented on Broadway than a genuine national theater.) Sadly, experiments like the one at Kennedy Center are unlikely to be tried again in these budget-cutting times.

Yet London's National Theatre -- with its innovative "revisals" of the type of classics that only get staged at colleges in this country -- proves how artistically rewarding a subsidized national company can be. A British trip spent entirely in the National's three-theater complex would be a fully satisfying theatrical experience.

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