If Sylvester Stallone is timid about traveling to Paris this spring, he would feel perfectly safe in London. True, people here are being superwatchful about unclaimed parcels and items left under theater seats. My umbrella was back in my hands almost before I missed it. But in general, this is the calm and sensible city that it always has been, happy to see the sun again.

The theater is lively. Is it disturbing to find some of its brightest minds engaged in fabricating entertainments that suggest the Saturday-morning cartoons on American television? It is. Yet you can’t say that these artists don’t know exactly what they are doing, or that junk is all that they are doing. As usual, it’s the sheer diversity of the London theater that arouses the American visitor’s envy. This is what a theater capital is supposed to be, offering something for every intelligence.

London has always been a theater capital, but it is a more secure one today than it was in the early ‘60s, when the National Theatre of Great Britain was still operating out of the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company was just beginning to perform at the Aldwych. Today, each company has its own multimillion-dollar theater plant here and each wields more clout, economic and artistic, than any single producer or theater owner in the West End, London’s Broadway.


Yet the West End flourishes. Not only have the two state-supported companies supplied the commercial theater with “product” (“Amadeus” from the National, “Nicholas Nickleby” from the RSC), they have kept the flag flying for the old tradition that the stage--not movies, not TV--is where the real actor and the real dramatist want to work.

So Jeremy Irons comes back to do “The Winter’s Tale” for the RSC, and Anthony Hopkins comes back to do “Pravda” for the National, and Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith and Albert Finney are never far away.

Jackson is currently supporting a play called “Across From the Garden of Allah” at the Comedy Theater. Written by Charles Wood, it gives her little more to do than describe the perils of sitting around the pool at the Chateau Marmont with all one’s clothes on. Nevertheless, the audience is given an evening with a world-class star in a theater where the cheapest seat (about $6) puts one as close to the action as a $20 seat at the Ahmanson. Not a bad deal.

Hopkins is up against a play that calls for everything he’s got, Howard Brenton’s and David Hare’s “Pravda.” He gives an astonishing performance--one is tempted to say an impossible performance.

A play is supposed to give the audience someone to root for. Not “Pravda.” Its good guys are either fools or wimps and its bad guy--a press lord patterned after Rupert Murdoch--is a monster. But you can’t take your eyes off him. The “charm” that the other characters claim to see in him isn’t there, but we do see why he makes them dance to his tune (which he celebrates by doing his own version of a pirouette). He’s like a hammerhead shark who turns his radar in the direction of his victim and absolutely fixes him with terror. Ordinary civilized life simply doesn’t equip one to deal with an adversary of such preternatural will.

“You are weak,” he croaks to one of his victims, “because you do not know what you believe.” The play’s given subject is London journalism, but its real subject is the appeal of the fascist leader to the kind of clever, weak-willed professional who simply wants to get on with his career and let someone else give the orders, even if it’s Satan.

The play explains a good deal more about Hitler’s takeover in Germany than many plays written on that subject, and Hopkins’ characterization, which at first seems over-the-top, comes to seem no more overdrawn than a powerful editorial cartoon. There is more truth in this “comedy of excess” that one likes to acknowledge.

The second most alarming show in London is “Starlight Express.” Like “Cats” it was devised by Trevor Nunn (moonlighting from his job as co-director of the RSC) and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. It purports to be a variant of the fable of the little-engine-that-could, its hero a game little steam locomotive who beats out an electric locomotive in a race on sheer British grit.

What “Starlight Express” feels like is “Rollerball” come to life. The locomotives are played by actors on roller-skates, and for about 20 minutes it’s amusing and exciting to watch them zoom around the triple-tiered interior of the Apollo Victoria Theatre--around you, above you, behind you.

But the banality of what they are saying and singing counters the novelty of what they are doing. Lloyd Webber has written some extraordinary theater music in the past, but here he is simply turning the crank, while Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics could have been composed by a moderately bright computer. The show doesn’t even keep the rules of the big race straight: The steam engine is disqualified, yet somehow wins.

Watching the show is exactly like watching those Saturday cartoons, where nothing has to add up because the kids don’t know the difference--if it moves, they’ll watch it. After an hour, “Starlight Express” even starts to seem sinister, like something out of “Brave New World” or “1984,” an entertainment put on by robots for an audience of clones. A new West End musical called “Time” is said to be even more mechanical--it features huge holograms of Cliff Richard and Laurence Olivier. If this is the wave of the future, let’s hope that someone pulls the plug.

Nunn compares these extravaganzas to the masques of the Elizabethan era, and he is becoming a specialist in them. His latest spectacular is the Broadway-bound musical, “Chess.” Previews of that were delayed, but I was able to see Nunn’s next-to-last spectacle, “Les Miserables,” based on the much-acclaimed Paris musical.

As a spectacle should do, it knocks your eye out, particularly when the barricades go up--or, rather, slide in--during the street-fighting scene. (John Napier, also the designer of “Starlight Express” and “Cats,” did the set.) The acting is heroic, in the style of the RSC’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” And there is nothing wrong with the English text and lyrics, credited to Nunn, co-director John Caird and James Fenton.

But this handsome show isn’t as rousing and as pathetic as a grand old potboiler should be. The story isn’t mocked, but we aren’t swept into it, as we were with the RSC’s “Nicholas Nickleby.” The battle at the barricades suggests a tableau vivant at the Laguna Pageant of the Masters, and the scene where the smudge-faced little waif stops a bullet is as corny as a scene from “Birth of a Nation.”

Clearly, the aim is to restore us to a state of innocence, to take us back to a time when such effects drew real cheers and tears in the theater. But the production’s very efficiency and good taste keep reminding us that it’s 1986, too late for stock responses. The only emotion that doesn’t seem impossibly idealized is Valvert’s (Roger Allam) obsessive hatred for Jean Valjean (Colm Wilkinson), and that never quite pays off.

And yet the French record album of “Les Miserables” does sweep the listener into a world of bold emotion. Perhaps this is a show for the ear alone. Or perhaps putting some of the French back would put some of the romance back. It’s something for the RSC to think about when “Le Miserables” travels to the Kennedy Center next winter.

One of the best little plays of the season can be seen at the Royal Court Theater’s Upstairs Theater (about seven flights up). This is Andrea Dunbar’s “Shirley.” Its heroine is a hard-nosed teen-age girl whose boyfriend goes off to the clink for a couple of weeks, meaning that she has to bring in a substitute. This causes a commotion when her first fella gets out.

But not to worry. If Shirley and her Mum (another hard-nose) lose their men, there will be other men. And if there aren’t, who needs men anyway, except for an occasional roll in the hay? What really counts is having someone in the house to share a laugh with.

Dunbar suggests that this may go for fellas, too--half the time they’d rather be out drinking and bashing each other. If this sounds like a rather bleak view of the sexes, it is played with such resilience by Carole Hayman’s actors (particularly Lesley Sharp as Shirley and Susan Brown as her Mum) that you end up wondering if Shirley doesn’t have a point at that. At least she knows what she wants.

Looking for something on the fringe, I took a cab to West London for “The Lower Depths--an East End Fable.” This is Gorky’s play adapted to the conditions of today’s London and offering something rare on the English stage--a racially mixed cast. They are mixed in talent, too, and Tunde Ikoli’s script goes on too long, just as Gorky’s does. The theater, however, the Tricycle, is an exciting space, with its plain-pipe-rack framing and its obvious commitment to the people in the neighborhood. Theater in London can be just down the road.