West End carries on

LONDON — Sure, London is on terrorist alert — when, in some ways, is the British capital not? But the word around town is that the theater (so far, anyway) is doing OK, especially by comparison with the economic free-fall experienced of late across the Atlantic.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Brendan Fraser, opened Sept. 18 to a more than decent advance of £230,000 ($335,000) and has benefited since from some money reviews, especially John Peter’s flat-out rave in the Sept. 23 Sunday Times.

On Oct. 2, Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”) returns to the West End with a new play, “Mahler’s Conversion,” that is itself expecting an advance by opening night in the vicinity of £200,000 ($290,000). The draw there seems to be not just leading man Antony Sher but Mahler himself, who may well do for Harwood what Mozart did for Peter Shaffer with “Amadeus.”

“Mamma Mia!” and “My Fair Lady” are keeping up their torrid pace, as is “The Lion King,” which played to 98.5% and 98.8% in the weeks ending Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, respectively. (Only the Wednesday matinees failed to go clean.)

All told, says Andre Ptaszynski, chief exec of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theaters, business across the group’s 13 playhouses was down 10% in the week that included the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and “a bit less than 10%” during the following week.

“My reading of the situation,” Ptaszynski told Variety Sept. 26, “is that we’ve had a modest slackening of the normal autumn recovery that was stopped short by events on the 11th” — among other things, as he points out, all Britain was busy watching TV — but that the West End “is gradually picking up momentum.”

However fearful the capital may be (an apprehension the local press has been quick to whip up), Ptaszynski feels “there is less risk to Londoners than there has been from the IRA through much of the last 10 years.”

The London legit vet — as his own producer, Ptaszynski’s West End credits include “Tommy,” “Fosse” and “Return to the Forbidden Planet” — warned against producers “hiding behind Sept. 11” to justify or explain downturns that undoubtedly would have happened anyway.

Among the shows running out of juice are “Notre-Dame de Paris” and “Closer to Heaven,” which both are calling it quits within the next two weeks, as well as “The King and I,” which named a Jan. 5 closing date well before the horrific events of late. “Peggy Sue Got Married” looks an unlikely bet for longevity, with some surprisingly good reviews failing to kick-start the B.O.

Still, the ripple effect of Sept. 11 surely will be felt for some time to come, from the unfortunate program cover of the Chichester Festival production of Sondheim revue “Putting It Together,” which gives full prominence to the World Trade Center, to the one-night-only preem Sept. 15 of possibly the first play inspired by the attacks: “Never-Never Land,” a 10-minute script by Beau Willimon, a 23-year-old Columbia U. grad student. (Says Willimon: “I was trying to come to terms myself in the best way I knew how, which was to write.”)

Meanwhile, producer Robert Fox has postponed indefinitely a November West End bow for David Hare’s “My Zinc Bed,” which was to have been directed by Howard Davies and starred Robert Lindsay. (The same play was seen at the Royal Court last fall in an entirely separate production, directed by the author.)

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a play on this year in the West End,” says Fox, who is otherwise keeping busy as co-producer of the Richard Eyre/Judi Dench film “Iris,” opening in the U.S. in December.

What about doing “My Zinc Bed” next year? Says Fox: “Who knows?”

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