After three weeks of pasting Elizabeth Taylor all over its front pages, the British press today began to rip her apart on its drama pages.

The more generous reviews of Thursday night's opening of the transplanted American production of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" concentrated on Taylor's "strong line in reptilian Southern charm," her "very fine" profile in tightly laced gowns, and "her flamboyance, her ferocity and the mature beauty of a great girl of 50 with fabulous eyes and truly sumptuous embonpoint."

The nastiest, in The Daily Express, dismissed her as "as uncharismatic as a damp bale of cotton" after "making an entrance worthy of Miss Piggy, trailing mauve lingerie." As a stage actress, decided The Daily Mail, "she teeters on the brink of competence." The Guardian's critic wrote that she arrived on stage "like some stately old galleon, almost submerging the play which brought her here."

But what happened on stage hardly mattered. Many in the audience admitted afterward they had not come for the play or the quality of her acting, but simply to see in the flesh the woman the tabloids described as "the queen of show business."

That already has been attraction enough to fill the 1,594 seats of the cavernous Victoria Palace theater during two weeks of previews and to sell more than $2 million worth of tickets at up to $45 each for the play's limited run, which has been extended from 10 to 17 weeks.

If Taylor displayed insufficient subtlety, polish or power in her stage role, she has exceeded all expectations in her performance offstage. She was already front-page news in the tabloids the day before she arrived here Feb. 23, with pictures of her from New York and speculation about a reunion with Richard Burton.

Two days later, Taylor held a press conference at the London Palladium, which the tabloid front pages decreed a triumphant one-woman show rivaling the introduction of Marilyn Monroe to London more than a quarter-century ago. Bedecked in diamonds and gold, Taylor turned it into what The Daily Mirror's bold-type headline called "the court of Queen Elizabeth."

Entering and leaving, she had to fight her way through a swirling crowd of fans and newsmen. To a reporter who suggested she enjoyed the crowds and chaos, Taylor answered, "Listen, honey, if you want to say that, say it."

She was back in the tabloids again with Ringo Starr, Rudolf Nureyev and Tony Bennett, among others, at the birthday party thrown for her at a London disco club by Taylor's producer and good friend, Zev Bufman. He has been at her side most of the time here.

But it was Burton who materialized next to Taylor at the party. They held hands and kissed much of the evening. As newsmen watched from outside, Burton followed Taylor into the Chelsea house where she is staying for what he later said was several hours of early-morning conversation with her and their children.

Asked if the reunion was part of the publicity buildup for her play, Taylor was quoted by the Sunday tabloid People as saying, "This is no publicity stunt, honey."

After a few quiet days, during which the tabloids contented themselves with tidbits like pictures of Taylor wearing a Japanese kimono to rehearsal, came the dream night for Fleet Street editors, when Diana, princess of Wales, met Taylor at a charity preview performance of "The Little Foxes."

The Sun devoted three pages to pictures of the event, and even the comparatively staid Times of London published a photo of Elizabeth and Diana, headlined: "Princess Meets the 'Queen.' "

The play's opening night was the occasion for still more hoopla. Photographers and television cameramen jammed the theater's aisles and crowds mobbed its entrances, searching for famous faces. They were rewarded with Edward Fox, Susannah York, Susan Hampshire and others familiar only to British television viewers and gossip-column readers.

Taylor was applauded more warmly when she began her performance than when it was over. But by then many seats were empty. The glittery people were already on their way to after-theater parties that continued into the morning.