<preform>Cloaca, The Old Vic, London <br>The Solid Gold Cadillac, Garrick, London<br> Buried Child, NT Lyttelton, London<br> Tshepang, Gate, London</preform>

Just because it's not as bad as they all say it is, doesn't mean it's any good
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The Independent Culture

The Old Vic is back in business, with a media circus attached. You could hardly squeeze into the foyer past the cameras on Cloaca's press night because, of course, this is the first production of Kevin Spacey's artistic directorship at the historic playhouse in Waterloo. The great hope is that Spacey's celebrity and programming will pull the crowds. Personally, I admire him for not playing completely safe. Instead of appearing in his opening show, the Hollywood star is making it his debut as a stage director and he's introducing us to an award-winning Dutch writer, Maria Goos, who is an unknown here. Sounds fine. That said, is it enticing to kick off with a play title that in Latin denotes a conduit for cack? Will Cloaca, one wonders nervously, live down to its name?

The Old Vic is back in business, with a media circus attached. You could hardly squeeze into the foyer past the cameras on Cloaca's press night because, of course, this is the first production of Kevin Spacey's artistic directorship at the historic playhouse in Waterloo. The great hope is that Spacey's celebrity and programming will pull the crowds. Personally, I admire him for not playing completely safe. Instead of appearing in his opening show, the Hollywood star is making it his debut as a stage director and he's introducing us to an award-winning Dutch writer, Maria Goos, who is an unknown here. Sounds fine. That said, is it enticing to kick off with a play title that in Latin denotes a conduit for cack? Will Cloaca, one wonders nervously, live down to its name?

It turns out Goos' contemporary seriocomedy is the Netherlands' answer to Yasmin Reza's Art. Four middle-aged blokes, who've been mates for years, find their friendship under severe strain. The tensions even revolve around expensive modern paintings which one of them owns, though Goos' scenario is slightly more messy than that. Stephen Tompkinson's Pieter, once a passionate art history student, has toiled as a council archivist for two decades. His only joy is that he has been allowed to pick a few artworks out of the storeroom of unwanted gifts and furnishings. Now, though, the civic body wants them back because their market value has soared, so a legal battle is pending in which Pieter could lose everything. His old pals offer to help. Jan is a high-powered politician and Tom is a hotshot lawyer but the trouble, according to Goos, is that these guys are essentially self-obsessed, hopelessly screwed up or insensitive. Three out of four survive and two might behave better henceforth, but they're all dangerously circling the drain in their professional or private lives.

Spacey's production is slick in the main, and boasts much excellent acting. Adrian Lukis' Tom is farcically hyperactive and touchingly vulnerable. Not so much a lawyer as a liability, he is going berserk thanks to cocaine and manic depression. As Jan, Hugh Bonneville has cold ambition lurking under his laughable arrogance and marital fuming. Neil Pearson has a startlingly nasty side too playing Maarten, a theatre director teased for his jaded experimentalism.

However, Tompkinson oscillates between shouting and sentimentally milking his lines, and it's not just Reza fans who'll have a sense of déjà-vu. Pieter's trendy apartment looks suspiciously like the mirror image of the New York loft from last year's Almeida production of The Mercy Seat (same designer, Robert Jones). Ultimately, this piece lacks originality and, if Pieter's buddies are a disappointment, so is Goos. Her only female character is a skimpy bit part - a hooker who gets her own back with a one-line gag - while the men's set monologues are unbelievably artificial and tautologous to the point of constipation. So, just don't expect too much. Cloaca isn't exactly the proverbial canis testes, as they say in Latin.

One also wonders why the West End production company Act - who usually know a decent show when they see it - have invested in The Solid Gold Cadillac. Though doing their best, Patricia Routledge and dear old Roy Hudd aren't enough to soup up George Kaufman and Howard Teichmann's embarrassingly feeble, vintage US comedy. To be fair, 50 years after it was written, the play's opening scene is still strikingly au courant. At the stockholders' meeting of a mega-corporation, the board of directors are all grinning fat cats until a cranky old lady (Routledge) starts asking sticky questions about falling profits and their soaring wages. Recent scandals and shareholder rebellions spring to mind: Enron, Shell, Lord Black etc. Unfortunately, Ian Brown's staging has absolutely no satirical bite thereafter, and one can only presume that Teichmann and Kaufman (once described as America's greatest wit) have hoarded all their jokes in some other, offshore play. Excuse me, who is being short-changed here?

Far more rewarding is the revival of Sam Shepard's twisted family drama, Buried Child, where there's a skeleton in the cupboard or, rather, in the field behind the farm where old Dodge (M. Emmet Walsh) sits slugging whiskey and growling on his sofa. His grandson, Vince who, we glean, has been away for years in New York, turns up with his girlfriend Shelly, envisaging a cosy homecoming. But he isn't even recognised by his grandpa or his supposed father, Tilden. Maybe the whole damned lot of them are off their rockers. Something is certainly rotten in the heart of Shepard's America and Shelley is on dangerous ground, deciding to make these guys talk.

Matthew Warchus' production is something of a rollercoaster ride. It gets off to a dismayingly poor start, not just because Elizabeth Franz, as Dodge's wife, is unsure of her lines. Worse, when her nagging voice was meant to come from the top of the stairs, it was blasting straight into my ear from a speaker hidden in the auditorium wall. This show is not called Buried Tannoy, is it? Warchus also allows the closing scenes to become too ponderous, as the play turns into a kind of post-Biblical saga or neo-Greek tragedy about cursed dynasties and hopes of purgation. In between, however, it is riveting, hilariously crazy and chilling. The long, horrific silence between Shelly and Tilden's potentially psychotic brother (Sean Murray) - when he holds his finger inside her mouth - must be one of the most quietly terrifyingly scenes in 20th-century theatre. Playing Shelly with an unsettling mix of comic shirtiness, fear and flirtation, Lauren Ambrose is an outstanding newcomer. Walsh's Dodge is like a snapping, mangy old cur, and Brendan Coyle is absolutely superb. His tattooed, hulking bear of a Tilden slouches heavily yet exudes mercurial menace, sorrow and tenderness. Rather than mentally slow, he circles around Shelly, staring obsessively, like a folk-tale ogre playing Pinteresque power games. Electrifying.

Last but not least, Tshepang is an excellent South African production, written and directed by Lara Foot Newton. This two-hander recalls the horrifying story of the baby who was raped in a small town in the Cape in 2001. The silent actress, playing the traumatised mother of the child, sits furiously rubbing her hands in a pile of sand, with a miniature bed is strapped to her back like a burden of guilt. The man who speaks to us - with great natural warmth and a persistent hope that talking might help - is the woman's childhood sweetheart who still cares for her. It looks simple but the way the story is approached - tangentially and using symbolic props - is finely judged. The rapist is represented by the broom that was used to beat him within an inch of his life during his own infancy, and the narrator's naturalistically rambling chat vividly describes whole social scene so you understand why this happened - the long-term social problems of violent parenting, poverty, unemployment and drink. Harrowing, but valuably illuminating.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Cloaca': Old Vic, London, SE1 (0870 060 6628), to 11 December; 'The Solid Gold Cadillac': Garrick, London WC2 (0870 890 1104), booking to 15 January; 'Buried Child': NT Lyttelton, London, SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 15 December; 'Tshepang': Gate, London, W11 (020 7229 0706), to 16 October

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