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Arts: Exeunt omnes. Farewell then to the Old Vic

Eight months ago Sir Peter Hall, founder of the RSC, former director of the National Theatre, launched his own round-the-clock, seven-day-a- week repertory company at London's historic Old Vic. Now the `For Sale' signs have gone up and the curtain must fall.

As Hall & Co prepare to give their final performance tonight, Jasper Rees watches from the wings.

As the audience converged on the Old Vic to see Shining Souls, a homeless man sat with hand cupped at the foot of the central pillar of the famous old portico. From tomorrow morning, the company which for the last eight months has occupied the building will be able to join him on the pavement. The Peter Hall Company comes to the end of its season tonight and, because the Old Vic has gone on sale, will not be back in February as originally intended. It too has lost the roof over its head.

When darkness falls on the Old Vic it will affect the local economy of Waterloo from beggars upwards. But it isn't quite the end for the Old Vic, and maybe not the end at all. Slava's Snow Show moves in for three weeks over Christmas, by which time we may know who has bought the building from its Canadian owners, Ed and David Mirvish. Most of the bids invited in an informal tender process are apparently from parties with theatrical plans for the place. But not all potential buyers aim to use the building for performance, and would require permission for putting it to alternative use from the local planning authority. It was recently reported in The Stage that Alan Whitehead, who runs the Secrets strip chain, would be interested in turning it into a national lapdancing centre. He must have read somewhere that it used to be the home of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre.

In the meantime, there's a two-pronged sense of loss in the building, stemming from the fact that both the resident company and the building's management are preparing to evacuate. It's very easy to confuse the two, because the identities of both have become so quickly intertwined. People who work for the company speak as fondly of the theatre itself as of Hall's ambitious rotation of a classic and modern repertoire. "I can't really explain how brilliant it's been," says wig mistress Sarah Palmer. "I was with the RSC for 11 years before, but this has been more family-oriented. We knew it was special right from the very beginning. The building is very beautiful, and we're all in one place. We have just become closer and closer as the year went on. Everybody is so enthusiastic about working that they're really putting everything into it, working through their lunch breaks and tea breaks. It's very rare."

Tonight Sir Peter Hall will invite everyone associated with the building up on stage for a final bow. "I'll probably cry a lot," says Palmer. "There won't be a dry eye in the house," agrees Greg Hicks, who, as Edgar in tonight's final performance of King Lear, gets to speak the last lines the Peter Hall Company will deliver on this stage. "I will find it very difficult," he says. "I'm privately extremely touched that it happens to be me that's saying it. God knows, I hope it's not the last time that Shakespeare will be spoken on this stage, but from what we understand there's no reason to suppose that won't be the case."

Not everyone in the building is specifically lamenting that departure of the Peter Hall Company. Andrew Leigh has been the Old Vic's general manager since 1979, three years before the Mirvishes purchases the theatre. "It is a wrench but 18 years is an awfully long time to stay anywhere. It's probably good for me that I'm leaving. I think the acute sensation will probably come on 31 January, when I come to lock the door and close it down and switch out the lights and nobody else is here. I and my assistant and the accountant will be the last people to leave." He will be using the final month to dispose of the theatre's archive. "I am determined that whoever acquires the Old Vic should not do what many other theatre owners do, which is just to throw it all away." The papers are destined for the theatre collection in the University of Bristol drama department, where there is a room especially devoted to the Old Vic archive. It is partly financed by the Mirvishes.

Down on the stage door, Matt Harrington is relinquishing his post after a six-year vigil. During the Peter Hall Company's tenure, he says, "it has been three or four times as busy for me. But it's such a family atmosphere, so it's going to feel like the break-up of a family. Friends say, `why don't you get a proper job?' But they don't understand."

The actor whom Harrington has signed in most regularly this year is Greg Hicks, who has taken on five different roles, including his lank-haired, dribbling Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, and was at one point performing no less than nine times a week. "Even now it's difficult to grow a career like you grow a pot plant," he says. "You're very rarely in the same place of stable growth, which is what is what is so brilliant about this company. It was a company that would grow together. Hopefully it will have a continuity. In an ideal world it would be here. Were Peter Hall to come on stage and say, `On 1 January I start another company', I think there would be a genuine sense of euphoria."

Hicks, like many others in the building, has worked in large companies before, including the National Theatre, "but you have a structural difference here", he says. "Here is this one small, warm building with a lifeblood that goes right back to when it was first built in the 1860s. Without being sentimental, you absolutely feel that in this building you can try anything out and you wouldn't be condemned for doing so. The RSC for actors is a more nervous empire. Sometimes people get lost in the system. This building breeds a sense of security. Plus the fact that there is a genuine sense in this company of everybody getting a good crack of the whip." That includes the stagehands, half a dozen of whom were recruited as extras for Lear.

The secret of the relationship between the building and the company lies in their mutual suitability. Each has had something to give the other, and it's unlikely that either will find that with other partners. The impresario Bill Kenwright is looking for a home for the company north of the river. "But it's not going to be so easy in the West End," says Hicks, "just by virtue of the fact that it's the West End." Meanwhile, there will be a diaspora of talent. Leigh is going to the Shaftsbury. Palmer has been offered work at the Globe and the Young Vic. Stagehand Stuart Goodier says: "I may be doing my own one-man show. Stagehand work is filling in for when I can get some acting work."

"Other employers," says Hicks, who is bound for the Glasgow Citizens, "look at people who work in this building, either at the administrative level or the stage management level or in costumes or wigs, and think: if they can make that work, they must be good."

Harrington on the stage door is "going to Chicago", he says. It's unclear whether he's referring to the city or the musical. Both seem light years away from a theatre where darkness, bar the brief intervention of Slava's Snow Show, is about to fall. As the audience rushes to catch the last show, it's almost as if you can hear the front-of-house announcement on the PA. "Ladies and gentlemen, will you please vacate your seats. The Old Vic closes in one minute."

The final performance of `King Lear' is tonight at 7.30pm. Box-office: 0171-928 7616