Theater is the star in a London museum Museum: Memories of London theater are preserved in historic Covent Garden, where Henry Higgins discovered Eliza Doolittle.

February 19, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

LONDON -- In London's Theatre Museum, the expression, "Give me a hand," is taken literally. Well, almost.

Among the exhibits at this distinctive museum is a corridor of autographed, multicolored handprints made by such members of Britain's theatrical elite as Ian McKellen and Diana Rigg. (Timothy Dalton's was dirty and smudged from visitors fitting their hands over it.)

This British re-interpretation of the cement prints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in California is just one of the unusual displays at a museum that proves not all London theater takes place on stage.

The museum is in the former Flower Market building in Covent Garden -- an appropriate setting for two reasons, one historical and one musical. Historically, Covent Garden was the site of the first theaters granted charters by Charles II after the ban instituted during the English Civil War. In musical terms, this was the spot where "My Fair Lady's" Henry Higgins discovered Cockney-spouting Eliza Doolittle selling flowers. (Quite rightly, one of Julie Andrews' costumes from that long-running show is on display -- an elegant, though much-repaired, beaded silver-and-white evening gown.)

Covent Garden itself has changed considerably in recent years. Though there are still several theaters in the area, the produce and flower markets have been replaced by trendy shops and open-air stalls selling everything from mismatched teacups to bathrobes made of beach towels.

The Theatre Museum's origins date back to the 1920s when Gabrielle Enthoven, a theater enthusiast and collector of memorabilia ranging from playbills and prompt scripts to newspaper clippings and photographs, donated her collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Though still a branch of the V&A, the Theatre Museum didn't come into being as a distinct entity until 1974 and didn't move into its Covent Garden home until 13 years later.

Today, the focus of the museum isn't merely static exhibits, but, in the words of Stuart Bennett, head of education, to create "theater in action." To this end, visitors can join in various demonstrations.

In "Slap -- A Celebration of Stage Make-up," museum-goers can have their faces transformed into those of animals or period characters or, in the demonstration I witnessed, the victim of a mugging -- complete with blood eye drops and nasty, oozing wounds. There are also helpful tips, should you wish to try such gruesome makeup at home. Rice Krispies, for example, make excellent warts.

In the costume workshop, visitors try on clothing from actual productions and learn about the obstacles actors must overcome while performing in heavy fabrics, or tight corsets, or gowns with such apparent impediments to movement as oversized bustles. A fortunate few even get to don a weasel's tail or Toad's green plaid coat and lime-colored suede gloves from the Royal National Theatre's production of "The Wind in the Willows."

Of course, there's also lots of British theater history -- some of which you won't find in most standard theater history texts.

Take one of the 30-minute guided tours and you will learn that the doors were locked when a play began at the famed Globe Theatre. As guide Linda Leigh pointed out, theater-goers were unable to leave even to relieve themselves. "It smelled like hell in there," Leigh said. "Good thing it was open air."

When women were allowed on stage, in the 17th century, Leigh continued, they often appeared in so-called "breeches" parts, which allowed male audience members to admire their legs. Those not satisfied with this amount of ogling could pay to see the actresses dress backstage.

Modern exhibits range from a red silk monogrammed dressing gown and matching needlepoint slippers that belonged to Noel Coward to a suit worn by John Lennon.

The museum, which bills itself as the "National Museum of the Performing Arts," also mounts special exhibitions, such as "Picturing the Players," more than 80 works from Somerset Maugham's collection of paintings of theatrical greats.

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