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West End Story

The Americans are coming! Madonna leads a glitzy all-star invasion of the staid-no-more British theater.

Can’t act? Can’t sing? Well, as they say, you should be in pictures. But what do you get when Hollywood’s best step on stage in London? Mixed reviews, for starters. And a media feeding frenzy the likes of which the venerable West End rarely sees.

No, the critics weren’t kind to Madonna, who opened in ”Up for Grabs” on May 23. A scribe for the Times of London compared her performance as a cagey art dealer to her plain costumes (”pale, wan, and lacking in colour”). But the nine-week run is sold out and fetching at least 10 times the sticker price (up to $55) for scalpers. (Who needs acting chops when the script has lesbian smooches and Madonna manning a large sex toy?)

At the after-show party at Asia de Cuba, some 300 guests drank passion fruit cocktails, scarfed sushi, and whispered about the star’s failure to project her voice. Madge herself was shielded from such criticism, perching with friends like fashionista Stella McCartney in a raised VIP area. Later Gwyneth Paltrow, drawing raves for her work in the drama ”Proof,” rushed over from her show to chow down with Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie at designer Donatella Versace’s post-party dinner at Italian eatery San Lorenzo. Madonna’s speech thanking Grabs’ cast and crew reportedly drew rapturous applause from guests including Sting and designer Tom Ford.

Madonna and Paltrow haven’t been the only U.S. stars living large in London. Matt Damon recently took over for ”Star Wars”’ Hayden Christensen in 1980s-Manhattan-set ”This Is Our Youth.” ”The Bourne Identity” star, currently off the boards to promote the spy flick but expected to return this summer, was hailed as a natural. Hollywood’s presence has created a stir in a world accustomed to a dire diet of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and earnest samizdats. ”These stars have had a cataclysmic effect in terms of putting bums on seats,” says Matt Wolf, Variety’s London theater critic. ”May is usually sluggish, and they’ve perked it up.”

The stars’ offstage antics have also proved buzz-worthy, despite the fact that Damon and his castmates were asked to forswear the London party scene and save their energy for the intense drama. The Material Girl’s comings and goings at the Wyndham Theatre’s back door have become a pilgrimage for the paparazzi. And Paltrow – much photographed in way-casual duds – has inspired a lexicographical addition: Dressing down is now known as ”doing a Gwynnie.”

So what draws the stars to the West End? ”It’s the heritage, it’s the tradition,” says Madonna’s ”Up for Grabs” costar Michael Lerner. BBC cultural commentator Mark Lawson says the celebs have something to prove to themselves: ”Can they hold their own with a London audience?” Regardless, it seems that doing Brit theater is becoming a rite of passage, says Grabs’ Aussie scribe, David Williamson. ”Film actors still feel stage acting is the ultimate test,” he says. ”There’s no editor, and you don’t have the luxury of retakes. The challenge makes the adrenaline run.”

And turns out it’s bloody good fun. Madonna hubby Ritchie told local reporters: ”I’m so pleased with my missus. People will slag her off for it, but who cares? It’s something she really wanted to do, and she’s enjoying every minute of it.”