Can Spacey reclaim his crown?

But Kevin Spacey's British Shakespearean debut, as Richard II, at the Old Vic in London has more riding on it than straightforward reviews and ticket sales.

For so far, out-and-out critical success has eluded the star of American Beauty and The Usual Suspects, and, despite garnering good reviews for his performances, his choice of plays at the historic venue where Laurence Olivier once trod the boards has been panned.

The heavyweight role he takes on tonight, in a heavyweight play, is what the theatrical community has wanted ever since he took over last summer. And they will be watching.

Terri Paddock, editorial director of the whatsonstage.com website and the Theatregoer magazine, said: "It is an important production, anyway. Trevor Nunn [former artistic director of the National Theatre] is directing something he has never directed before and Kevin Spacey is making his UK Shakespearean debut.

"But it is also important because it is the first production after what was a very mixed first season. People will be watching it quite closely. I'm afraid for Kevin Spacey, everything he does at the Old Vic is going to be watched."

When Spacey arrived in London, the hope was that he would produce nerve-tingling performances in the best of the classical repertoire just as he had done in his one appearance on the British stage before.

He received rave reviews seven years ago when he starred in the Almeida's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, which transferred to the Old Vic - a move which encouraged Spacey to consider becoming its actor-manager.

But while his first year in charge produced entertainment and profits - neither easy to achieve in the precarious business of non-subsidised theatre - critical success eluded him. Which is why tonight counts.

David Liddiment, the Old Vic's producer, said yesterday: "Richard II has a particular resonance because it's our [company's] first Shakespeare at the Old Vic.

"The theatre is closely associated with Shakespeare productions because of the work of Lilian Bayliss [who ran the theatre for 40 years and established it as the home of Shakespeare in London] and because it was the home of the National Theatre for 13 years.

"You can't be involved in the Old Vic without being aware of the extraordinary history of the theatre. All we can do is do the best work that we can."

But although they hoped for critical, as well as commercial, success they cannot do without audiences and ticket sales because they have no subsidy, he stressed. And audiences, as supported by a whatsonstage.com poll, have largely loved what Spacey has done, both on stage and behind the scenes. More than £500,000 worth of tickets have already been sold for Richard II.

"For the last 25 years, the Old Vic had had a pretty chequered history. It's been dark for chunks of time so we had to re-establish it as a destination theatre," he said.

The first season's mix of plays was designed to attract theatregoers back, but Mr Liddiment stressed one season did not "reflect the totality of what we're about".

So now there is the Shakespeare Spacey had always wanted to do and, after Christmas, the British premiere of a new play by Arthur Miller directed by the film auteur Robert Altman in his British stage debut. Later, Spacey will be reunited with Howard Davies, the director with whom he worked on the acclaimed Iceman Cometh.

Whatever the reviews bring, Spacey maintains he is here to stay. Before Richard II began previews last month, he said he had always known what he was taking on, and criticism was to be expected. But he said: "I'm in this for the long haul."

What the critics said

* Cloaca: The Independent: 1/10/2004 by Paul Taylor

"A kind of portrait by numbers of the male mid-life crisis, with the occasional flash of piquant female perception. Spacey's production is punchily acted and nicely modulated ... But the central treachery that provokes the tragic denouement can be seen coming a mile off."

* Aladdin: The Sunday Times: 26/12/2004 by Victoria Segal

"If the cast doesn't alert you to the fact that this is no ordinary festive spectacle, then the jokes about Trevor Nunn and Matthew Bourne will. Bille Brown's ramshackle script is actually a sophisticated panto facsimile, lovingly restored by a theatrical aristocracy who treasure the form as a staple of British theatre ... The sets might be shaky, but this is high-class lowbrow."

* Philadelphia Story: The Independent on Sunday: 15/5/2005 by Kate Bassett

"This revival of Barry's original play is woefully creaky. Directed by Jerry Zaks and designed by John Lee Beatty, both Broadway veterans who - in spite of their clutch of Tony Awards - hardly seem worth the price of their flights."

* National Anthems: The Guardian: 10/2/2005 by Michael Billington

"While Spacey is mesmerising, McIntyre's play offers a glibly mechanical metaphor for American life."

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