Britannia rules the stage

They're not in it for the money. It won't help their film careers. So why do US stars come over here to tread the boards? Jasper Rees on the mixed fortunes of the spangled pilgrims to the `mecca' of theatre

American tourists coming over to feel the buzz in what Newsweek recently dubbed "the world's coolest city" will have been surprised to note that no one has bought the line more than American screen stars. They have been migrating to the London stage all year, transforming it into Broadway-on-Thames, or the wild West End.

Gene Wilder is still here in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Mike Nichols, the comedian and movie director (The Graduate, The Birdcage), recently acted in Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner at the National. F Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his Salieri in Amadeus, took a punt on the conspicuously disastrous Tolstoy. Jessica Lange, another Oscar victor, is about to reprise her Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role which she took on Broadway in 1992 and subsequently filmed for CBS. And for a while it looked as if Cagney and Lacey would both have their names up in lights in separate West End shows: Sharon Gless was over this summer in Neil Simon's Chapter Two, while Tyne Daley, Lacey to Gless's Cagney, would have brought over her Tony-winning performance in Sondheim and Stein's Gypsy, if extensive negotiations hadn't finally fallen through. Tyne turned out to be a star too far.

The American star and the London stage have always had a thing going. It's a relationship of mutual convenience that, when it goes well, makes both parties feel good about themselves. Al Pacino in American Buffalo, Jack Lemmon in A Long Day's Journey into Night, Martin Sheen in The Normal Heart, Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice - there were no hotter tickets to be had when those boys were in town. But when it goes wrong, it goes twice as wrong. The name Raquel Welch, who last year toured the provinces in The Millionairess but never made it to London, should be singed into the consciousness of all producers tempted to look west for a big draw.

The obvious reason for producers to cast Americans is that, although most British stars can keep up a presentable Southern drawl or Brooklyn mumble, it's nice just occasionally to bring in a native speaker with box-office appeal. "They're fresh faces for a British audience," says the producer Duncan Weldon, who flew over most of the stars named above. "Audiences are very fickle in England and they soon get tired of seeing the same people."

The stars themselves have their own motives for coming. Although the more accomplished among them are stage actors by training, chances to tread the boards back home are rare. "If you look at the number of straight plays done on Broadway versus the number done here," says Kim Poster, the London-based American producer who cast Abraham as Tolstoy, "it's four to one, so the possibility in Britain is going to be that much better. Coming to the West End was absolutely enticing for him." The moral of Abraham's brief visit, though, is that, unless producers give their stars sturdy vehicles to appear in - Streetcar, say, or anything by Neil Simon - they might as well hand them a one-way ticket to nowhere.

The one thing Hollywood movie stars don't do it for, of course, is the money. "It is very prestigious to be here on your theatre resume," says Sharon Gless, who has never acted on Broadway but made her West End debut three years ago in Misery. "But succeeding on the London stage does not get you a television series in America; the networks don't care. However, in my opinion, it's the ultimate. My favourite part is that the actors are much more generous than they are in America. There is no caste system here. I discovered that when I was doing Misery: a huge actress would come backstage to meet me and say hello. In America, if you're a movie star, you don't talk to television people."

Gless is one of a handful who have made the pilgrimage more than once. Lauren Bacall first came over to do Sweet Bird of Youth (another Tennessee Williams) and returned to Chichester last year for Durrenmatt's The Visit. Duncan Weldon is currently negotiating with Jack Lemmon, among other American stars, to do Chichester next summer.

But some stars who come back for more get their fingers burned. Stephanie Powers, a hit with Robert Wagner in AR Gurney's Love Letters, was a very diminished Powers in the catastrophic Matador. Ditto Charlton Heston, who triumphed in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial but flopped when, after all the Mediterranean moral firebrands he's done on screen, he was miscast as an English one in A Man for All Seasons.

Disaster strikes more often than it should because the policy of British Equity, mirroring that of its American namesake, is to permit only famous foreigners to work in this country. "The obnoxious thing is that stars are allowed in, even if they can't act," says Sir Peter Hall, who had no problem smuggling Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange on to the London stage, but once had to get the Department of Employment to overturn Equity's ruling that Mandy Patinkin (star of TV's Chicago Hope) was insufficiently famous to act at Chichester. "My rallying cry to both unions would be, `Be a little more self-confident and allow talent to come.' There's got to be a must-see quality about it. The danger is that, if you cast an American wrongly and he or she can't deliver, it's not going to help anybody, is it? One doesn't start from the star standpoint. You have to start from who would be marvellous."

But even apparently logical casting is no insurance against technical limitation. In Circe and Bravo, a play about an alcoholic First Lady, no amount of direction from Harold Pinter could turn Faye Dunaway into a moving drunk. In Bus Stop Jerry Hall drawled uneasily in a role previously glamorised on celluloid by another famous blonde. As for Welch, she took to the boards to prove herself an actress but fell victim to her own curiosity value: some papers broke the unwritten code that withholds national reviews till the West End opening. Shaw's Millionairess was only a superficially apt casting: although the part was prominently portrayed by Sophia Loren on screen, it's a role in which many a greater actress - including Katherine Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Penelope Keith - has come a cropper.

Welch is not the only one who won't be back. Most Hollywood stars treat the English stage as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to feather their cap, which could never contend for their attention with the serious business of making films and money.

"I wish Pacino had stayed longer," says Weldon. "That's the trouble when you get one of these big American stars: they come and they pack out and they can't wait to go home. They want all the kudos of doing it but, in an ideal world, I think they'd all like to leave after the first night, whether they got good notices or not."

It remains to be seen whether Lange, a model plucked from the catwalk to play King Kong's girlfriend in the 1976 film version, has what it takes to seduce the critics who so hated the much more stage-mature Abraham in Tolstoy. "I didn't see her do it on Broadway," says Hall, "but I was thinking, who is the American actress who could really reevaluate that part? And I think she can. She has an extraordinarily fragile and witty quality. She is terribly good at being crazy. I thought I might as well ask her if she'd like to do it again. To my surprise, she said she'd love to look at it again, because she knew the size and the scope of the part now, and she'd like to do it with me because she admired me and she knew I knew Tennessee very well. But that was probably flattery."

Of course it was: she's just read too many US magazines, and fallen for the idea that London is the place to be. Even her non-flying husband Sam Shepard is boarding the trans-Atlantic steamer to be here in time for Christmas and opening night. When he first came to work on the London fringe, Shepard's nationality made him exotically solitary and novel: a quarter of a century on, cool Britannia is going to feel just like homen

`A Streetcar Named Desire' opens on 30 December, Theatre Royal, Haymarket (booking: 0171-930 8800)

Feathers in their cap: Jessica Lange (far left) as Blanche Dubois in the Broadway production of `A Streetcar Named Desire', a role she is about to reprise in the West End; Dustin Hoffman (left) as Shylock in `The Merchant of Venice'

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