Only the strong surviving on the West End

While theater is hardly recession-proof, it has proved more resilient than doom-mongers would have you believe. Some theatergoers, it appears, fancy cheering themselves up with live entertainment. However, there’s no denying the chill wind blowing through the West End.

Look at “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Brought into the Theater Royal Haymarket as a six-week stop-gap following the early demise of the Michel Legrand, Alain Boublil-Claude-Michel Schonberg tuner “Marguerite,” the play posted a closing notice within days of lackluster reviews and on Oct. 18 ground to a halt two weeks early.

As bets go, it looked pretty safe. Auds gazed at the painting, read the book, saw the movie, so surely they would want to see Tracy Chevalier‘s art-history, master-and-servant story onstage?

No. Peter Mumford‘s lighting of his own evocative set created nothing less than a series of 3-D Vermeer interiors peopled by actors in Fontini Dimou‘s recreations of the Dutch master’s beloved fabrics. But David Joss Buckley‘s adaptation of Chevalier’s bestseller put the turgid into dramaturgy and proffered dialogue so leaden it could have been mixed into paint.

That’s not the only struggling show. Only seven major West End tuners — “Billy Elliot,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Hairspray,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Lion King,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Wicked” — are not being heavily discounted and/or offered at the TKTS booth. That means even the TV-reality-show-related “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “The Sound of Music” and “Grease” are looking less than buoyant. The last of these hopes to boost business beginning Jan. 19, when the role of Teen Angel will be taken over by Jimmy Osmond.

Given this climate, launching another venue seems hugely reckless, but last week saw the re-opening of the London Hippodrome.

Formerly London’s most prestigious cabaret nightspot the Talk of the Town — performers from Judy Garland to Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey and the Temptations all recorded live albums there — its fortunes as a nightclub plummeted in the ’80s and ’90s. Banishing its tawdry recent reputation, the venue’s new resident show “La Clique,” looks like a winner.

The show has been a runaway hit in limited engagements at the Edinburgh Festival and in other international cities, and London, frankly, has nothing to compare with this. Speaking personally, if this critic ever sees another circus it will be too soon, but this exuberant mix of circus and cabaret is eye-watering and jaw-dropping.

What stops it from being merely a succession of unhinged acts no sane individual would dream of trying at home — squeezing your body through an unstrung tennis racquet, quadruple hula-hooping, chair-swallowing and nude conjuring (I’m not kidding) — is its wholly engaging comic flair. The wildly skilled performers are evidently insane, but they’re damn funny with it.

Audiences wrapped right around the stage feel connected to the acts no matter where they sit, and with bars around the edge of the circular auditorium and reasonable pricing — a $51 top rises to $61 on weekends — it resembles one of those creations that, like “Stomp,” deserves to run forever.

Or, at least it did until opening day when Westminster, the London authority that controls the license, declared the venue could not be successful for live entertainment. Instead, they’re backing a plan to turn it into a casino.

 The producers are fighting to keep the Hippodrome for live entertainment (it was built as a water circus-cum-music-hall in 1900 by Britain’s legendary theater architect Frank Matcham), but they’ll be forced to close in Aprilshould the developers raise the necessary $21 million. One can only hope that, in this instance, recession will aid theater’s fortunes.

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