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LONDON CALLING

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London Gripped by Reign of Terror

The unprecedented wave of violence which has swept London during the past month has left the entertainment industry reeling. The death of television presenter Jill Dando, shot in the head on her doorstep by a killer now generally supposed to be a hit man, was particularly shocking because such an act is so phenomenally rare in a country where all gun ownership is illegal. Figures for 1997 show that only two percent of murder victims in the U.K. died by gunshot. Dando's murder remains a mystery, although her main job-as anchorwoman of the BBC program Crimewatch UK responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of many big-time criminals-may prove to be a crucial factor.

Dando died while a spate of bombings targeted minority communities in the capital. Following explosions in Brixton, home to many Afro-Caribbeans, and Brick Lane, now predominantly Bangla-Deshi, the worst incident occurred April 30 in Old Compton Street, London's counterpart to New York's Christopher Street. The bomb destroyed a gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, killing three and injuring an estimated 62. Old Compton Street is in the heart of London's theatre district. The three who died had planned to move on from the pub to the Prince Edward theatre, further down the street, which is currently playing the gay-friendly musical Mamma Mia! Workers from the theatre were among the first on the scene to help the injured.

The Prince Edward and most other theatres in the area were closed by police for the rest of the evening. It was thought that the atrocity would keep many from visiting the West End, but pessimists reckoned without Londoners' deep-rooted indomitability, possibly engendered during the Blitz of World War II. The following evening, I visited the Adelphi to see Chicago and found the theatre packed. Even Chinatown, mentioned as a possibility for the bombers' next target, was teeming as usual. At the end of Old Compton Street, still cordoned off by police, many gathered to lay flowers against the barrier.

Although Home Secretary Jack Straw pledged last week that the U.K. would take a thousand refugees a week from war-torn Kosovo, Kosovars have, in fact, been arriving in this country for the past four years, and there is now a community of several thousand in the county of Essex, east of London. Six months ago director Benjamin May set up theatre workshops for them, and between May 4 and 8, they produced their first play, Brokenville, by Philip Ridley, in a church hall in Dagenham. The cast included Arbeshna Graborei Nixha, formerly an actress at Pristina's Teatri Dodona. Another actor, Arsim Rama, told a reporter, "It's very difficult to concentrate. But if I wasn't doing this I would just watch the news all day."

West End Theatres Change Hands

Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose personal fortune of £350 million rates him the wealthiest person in U.K. theatre, bought the Queen's and Gielgud theatres April 10, for an estimated £15 million. The present leaseholder, Janet Holmes a Court, whose Stoll Moss company runs several other major West End theatres including the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London Palladium, and Her Majesty's, is rumored to be losing interest in show business as she pursues political ambitions in Australia. Although no representative of either company is prepared to make a statement, Sir Cameron cannot be discounted as a prospective buyer for the entire Stoll Moss circuit, possibly within the next few months. Such a move would make him without question King of the West End, something which would attract very little adverse criticism. There is no one else in his elevated position so utterly and genuinely besotted with theatre.

No Sex Please, We're British

The news that a class of Roman Catholic schoolchildren walked out in the interval of a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's "sexually explicit" production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon was not taken at all seriously by the British press. Apparently 34 pupils, aged between 10 and 11, from Our Lady of the Assumption school in Coventry, West Midlands, were so shocked by director Michael Boyd's bawdy interpretation that they told their teacher, Stephen McGaw, 45, they wanted to leave. "It's unsuitable for children, sir," declared one boy. "It was extraordinary," McGaw said later, "the lengths they went to ensure there was a sexual innuendo in every scene." Editorial writers, on the other hand, were unconvinced that the RSC could be fairly accused of smut-peddling. The Dream, as they pointed out, is Shakespeare's most lecherous play, with sex the sole topic virtually from beginning to end. The theatre has now paid the school compensation of £610, a small price to pay, perhaps, for publicity that has made it almost impossible to get a seat for this production for the next six months.

Over Here

The leads in Saturday Night Fever at the London Palladium, have been taken over by Ben Richards and Joanne Farrell. "Unknowns," they are, in fact, musical veterans, having appeared together previously in Grease and Smokey Joe's Cafe. The hit show opens at the Minskoff, Oct. 21.... Two big TV names, Michelle Gayle and John Barrowman, are now playing the title roles in Beauty and the Beast, at the Dominion. "A Change in Me," the song introduced when Toni Braxton joined the New York production last year, has been added.... The Five Lesbian Brothers, based in New York since 1990, play London for the first time in Brave Smile, which opened at the Drill Hall, May 11.... U.S. actor Robert McCormick, who played Captain Tempest in the New York premiere of Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet four years ago, is playing the role again in a British tour, which runs until Dec. 18.... Following the success of the TV version of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books, a stage version will open at the Blackpool Opera House, in the north of England, at the end of May. Comedian Russ Abbot headlines.... Dynasty star Stephanie Beacham returns to the British stage after a long absence, in Terence Frisby's new comedy Funny About Love. It opened at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, south of London, May 18, and will tour.... Houston, Texas, actor Matt Rippy came to London in the early '90s and spent a year with the Reduced Shakespeare Company at London's Criterion theatre. He's now formed the Amoeba Theatre Company, which debuted May 20 at the little Courtyard theatre in King's Cross, north London, with the British premiere of Joyce Carol Oates' Ontological Proof of My Existence, first seen in New York in 1972.... The musical in this year's season at the Open Air theatre in London's Regent's Park is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It plays in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night, from June through September.

Finally

American singer Blair Wilson died March 29, aged 41, as the result of an infection following an operation. Born in Philadelphia, he came to London in 1985 to study at the Royal College of Music. Among his London stage credits were Carmen Jones, at the Old Vic, and Five Guys Named Moe, at the Lyric.

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