A Moon for the Misbegotten, Old Vic, London</br>Wicked, Apollo Victoria,London</br>The Seafarer, NT Cottesloe, London</br>On Insomnia and Midnight, Royal Court Upstairs, London</br>Cymbeline, Swan Theatre,Stratford

The Old Vic cometh back
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The Independent Culture

Talk about a reversal of fortune. Kevin Spacey's Old Vic went dark this summer after Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues bombed. But at last the place is back on blazing form with Spacey and Eve Best starring as Jim Tyrone and Josie Hogan, the poignantly thwarted lovers in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For The Misbegotten. This tragicomedy, where romance and revenge are entangled, is described as a minor masterpiece. But why minor? Whilst lesser-known, it's the more intriguing for being O'Neill's sequel to Long Day's Journey into Night - the play in which Spacey made his name 20 years ago, cast as the young boozy Jim in Jonathan Miller's Broadway production.

Many moons have passed. We now find ourselves back in rural Connecticut on the Tyrones' estate, but outside the Hogans' tumbledown shack under a wide lonely sky. With his domineering father and beloved mother both dead, Spacey's Jim has shelved his womanising life in Manhattan to sort out his inheritance and pay a visit to the whisky-slugging, roguish tenant farmer, Phil Hogan (Colm Meaney) and his daughter, both of whom Jim clearly adores but teases - threatening to sell their patch of land.

Maybe the fine acting helps cover up some corny moments in the play. O'Neill couldn't quite resist getting grandiose with semi-symbolic talk about new dawns and Jim being a dead man walking. But what's mostly exhilarating is the scruffy naturalness of these characters. Best's towering, barefoot Josie combines swagger with lovely, funny flurries of shy yearning. And when Spacey looks at her and smiles, a wonderful seductive chemistry sparks between them. Yet he's already half-canned, with potentially callous and deeply confused urges - including intimations that he's an irredeemable sexoholic. A mesmerising evening, with performances that will be up for best-of-the-year awards.

Another battered shack - one blown from Kansas to Munchkinland - features in Wicked, the Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire's prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The wittiest trick here is that L. Frank Baum's fairytale is reappraised as a shocking case of political spin. Idina Menzel's green-skinned Elphaba - who goes on from magic school to become notorious as the Wicked Witch of the West - isn't actually a baddie but a maligned crusader against fascistic xenophobia (if that's how you care to interpret it). The animals who have hitherto been citizens of Oz - accepted as goaty-bearded professors or lowly porters - begin to be rounded up, locked in cages and lose the power of speech - bringing to mind the Holocaust, McCarthyism and just possibly Guantanamo.

The Wizard (Nigel Planer) beams affably like a bumbling president but he is, in fact, a sneaky dictator. When Elphaba becomes a one-woman resistance movement armed with flying broomstick, his PR chief, Miriam Margolyes's Madame Morrible, launches a smear campaign and wicked-witch hunt. Helen Dallimore's preening blonde Glinda - Elphaba's school chum and supposed good witch - turns collaborator too, though she's sorry in the end.

It is rather thrilling to find a piece of glittery showbiz harbouring a political message akin to The Crucible. However, Stephen Schwartz's pop-rock score and lyrics are bland. The choreography is disappointingly lame too. Still, the costumes are stylishly macabre. Margolyes is a splendid monster, like a tank camouflaged as a Rococo armoire, and Menzel effortlessly holds the stage with her soaring numbers and charming youthful determination.

As for writer-director Conor McPherson's new play, The Seafarer, we're back with reeling drunks, who are dicing with death but also want to see the dawn. It's Christmas Eve in a grungy hovel in contemporary Ireland where a bunch of ageing alcoholics find themselves playing poker with a sharp-suited stranger called Lockhart who is, in fact, the devil incarnate.

You might complain that McPherson is revisiting familiar ground here, his recurrent themes of booze, the other spirit world etc. This is like The Birthday Party crossed with Faust too. Yet it is also a hilarious, spooky and delving play about living hells, drying out, despair and hope. The superb cast includes Jim Norton as a horribly demanding invalid, Karl Johnson as his desolate brother, a comically lurching Conleth Hill and Ron Cook as the predatory, smirking Lockhart.

On Insomnia and Midnight sets out to exert a menacing grip as well. In Edgar Chias's Mexican two-hander (translated by David Johnston), a chambermaid (Vanessa Bauche from Amores Perros; below left) is interrogated by a guest (a feverishly voyeuristic Nicholas Le Prevost). Chias's dialogue can be verbose and the Pinteresque power games are predictable. However, Hettie Macdonald's production is claustrophobic and unnervingly funny.

Finally, Kneehigh's latest devised piece should come with a warning for Shakespearean traditionalists. Only a scattering of the original lines from Cymbeline survive, but this is a jubilantly freewheeling rewrite of the late romance, It's like panto, physical theatre and a gig in one with Hayley Carmichael as an adorable, timid yet sturdy Imogen and with fabulous jazz, reggae and folk songs from composer Stu Barker and his live band. More fun than any straight production I've ever seen.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'A Moon for the Misbegotten' (0870 060 6628) to 23 Dec; 'Wicked' (0870 400 0751) to 24 Feb; 'The Seafarer' (020 7452 3000) to 11 Jan; 'On Insomnia and Midnight' (020 7565 5000), to 7 Oct; 'Cymbeline' at Northern Stage, Newcastle (0191 230 5151), 3 to 7 Oct

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