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LONDON CALLING

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Time Up for "Rent"

The West End production of Rent is finally giving up a brave but somewhat foolhardy battle and closing Oct. 30. Generally disliked by critics and audiences, the show should have been put out of its misery last year, but has been kept on a life support system for 18 months, seemingly as a face-saving exercise. Last-ditch attempts to save it have included a media blitz and such stunts as "singles nights," offering the lone ticket-buyer the hope of meeting a partner at after-show dinners. But in September producers faced up to the reality that Rent could not survive another winter.

Unexpectedly, another show which is refusing to throw in the towel is Chicago. When it opened in 1997 to unanimous raves, producers felt confident enough to declare that the musical would play well into the next millennium. This year, however, half-empty matinees have thrown this prediction into serious doubt, and the stunts have begun. This week ticket prices were reduced. It seems that The Lion King, now previewing at the Lyceum, and Fosse, which opens Feb. 8, at the Prince of Wales, are breathing very heavily down everybody's necks. Which will be the next musical to succumb? Few would discount Whistle Down the Wind.

King of Comedy

Dick Vosburgh is one of London's favorite resident Americans. The actor-writer is simply one of the funniest men in the country, perfectly at home with English humor, but equally successful when waxing lyrical and nostalgic about the American entertainment he grew up with in New Jersey. He came to London in the 1950s to study acting at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), but established himself as a comedy writer, working on hundreds of radio and TV programs. Vosburgh's biggest stage hit was A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, a tribute to his childhood idols the Marx Brothers, which won three Tonys when it played on Broadway in 1980.

His latest show, A Saint She Ain't, which opened Sept. 16, at the Apollo, is very much in the same mold. It's an adaptation of a lesser-known Moli're farce Le cocu imaginaire, but its milieu is once again Hollywood in the '30s and '40s, with a mainly British cast doing impersonations of W.C. Fields, Mae West, Jimmy Durante, and more. Vosburgh's jokes are often hysterically funny, and his lyrics clever and literate. But the show will be even more successful in New York, played by Americans, to audiences who know who Abbott and Costello were. It can only be a matter of time before it comes your way. Don't miss it.

Royal Opera & Royal Court to Reopen

Both highly controversial, both rebuilt at astronomical cost, the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, and the Royal Court theatre, in Chelsea, are about to reopen to the public. Only three years ago, the Opera House appeared to be on the verge of financial collapse. In the view of press and public, the prospect of spending £214 million to enlarge it was scandalous. But time, and American fund-raiser extraordinaire Michael Kaiser, have soothed all bitterness. Now critics can't wait to experience the spectacular new building, which opens Dec. 6, with Verdi's Falstaff. Apparently the best seat in the house will still cost an arm and a leg (£150), but, the management is quick to point out, it will also be possible to see a matinee for as little as £2.

While its dilapidated 1888 theatre was being refurbished for a mere £26 million, the Royal Court company camped out at two West End theatres, the Ambassadors and the Duke of York's, striking gold with one play in particular, Conor McPherson's The Weir. Rumors have now been confirmed that McPherson's new play Dublin Carol will open the new Royal Court, but later than anticipated, on Jan. 7. Later next year, the Court will premiere 4.48 Psychosis, completed a week before the suicide last February of its talented but deeply troubled young author, Sarah Kane. The Actors Touring Company, the Fringe group which commissioned the play without a contract, is thought to be highly displeased that Kane's family later did a secret deal with the Court.

Over Here

As I anticipated in this column last March, Canadian comedy duo Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt's "play on music" 2 Pianos 4 Hands opened at the Comedy, Oct. 7. Greenblatt is no stranger to these shores. He studied at RADA. He and Dykstra are in London until December, after which two British pianists take over their roles, and Dykstra heads south to supervise the Australian production.

The UK's most prolific playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, is trying something new. Comic Potential, which opened at the Lyric, Oct. 12, is a romantic fantasy reminiscent of the recent movie Pleasantville. The washed-up Hollywood director in charge of a TV soap performed by robots is played by David Soul.

The Almeida theatre in Islington, north London, promises several high-profile premieres over the next few months, including plays by Harold Pinter (Celebration, opening in March) and Arthur Miller (Mr. Peter's Connections, due in July). The theatre will also present Ralph Fiennes in the title roles of Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus, to be staged in the long-disused Islington Film Studios, where Hitchcock's early films were shot.

Other News in Brief

A performance of Grease was abandoned at the Cambridge theatre, Sept. 2, when fire in a TV studio next door threatened to spread. A hundred firefighters brought the blaze under control, before the theatre was harmed.... The new Sadlers Wells theatre, which reopened last year after a £42 million refit, is to receive an extra £680,000 from the Government to save it from liquidation. Omens do not look good for this once-famous temple to music and dance.... The news that Kim Evans will be paid more than £100,000 a year as executive director of the Arts Council of England was denounced as ridiculous by several (lesser-paid) arts executives. "She is an incredibly important person," was the Council's retort to criticism.

A circus-style aerial show featuring acrobats and trapeze artists will be staged three times a day in the infamous Millennium Dome at Greenwich, west London. Previewed to the press in September, the show looks like a sanitized version of the madcap antics of Archaos, De La Guarda, and the Circus of Horrors. Tickets cost £20 each.... The scripts of two short masques, co-written by dramatist Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones, and last performed in 1630, have been discovered by chance in the archives of Wilton House, a stately home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, which Jones designed. "This must have been a little bit of fun which he and the various participants enjoyed in their leisure time," said Alun Williams, who made the historic find.

Finally

American dancer-actor Erick Ray Evans died of AIDS, Aug. 14, aged 48. Based in the UK from the early '60s, he was first seen, as Ray Evans, in the West End, in The Black Mikado, in 1975. Later he had bit parts in the movies The Spy Who Loved Me and Superman. He became a teacher, leading the weekend course The Mastery, at the Actors Institute in London and elsewhere in Europe. In 1991 he made a comeback in a regional tour of Driving Miss Daisy, winning a Best Actor nomination from the Manchester Evening News. q

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