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This Britain

2004: A Spacey Odyssey

First it was the dog. Then the old dog and bones. Now it's dames. What did Kevin Spacey do to deserve London?

Kevin Spacey's Aladdin, which opened last night, is probably the first production of that pantomime where the theatre's artistic director was doing more lamp-rubbing and wishing than the principal boy.

And with good cause. After a run of bad fortune that culminated in the cancellation of Friday night's performance, the Hollywood star was looking for help from even the most unlikely sources. In recent times, the double Oscar- winning American actor has braved withering reviews, a walk in the park turned into a "mugging" fiasco, and his criticism of "noisy" London audiences rebounded embarrassingly. So there was a lot more than one actor riding on this Aladdin's carpet - there was the reputation of one of American cinema's most glittering stars. Spacey's London Odyssey was at a critical stage.

When the man who brought a complex and pervasive presence to such films as The Usual Suspects and American Beauty first came to London in 1998, it seemed that all he had to do was to twinkle those compelling eyes and success would follow.

His debut in Britain was at the tiny Almeida Theatre in Islington, where his lead role in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh was described by David Benedict in The Independent on Sunday as "simply electrifying".

After a cameo role at the 2002 Labour Party conference in Blackpool, he was unveiled as the saviour of the Old Vic, the 186-year-old theatre which holds a special place in the hearts of actors and drama lovers alike.

Banana skins, however, were waiting. His latest film, Beyond the Sea, a bio-pic of the teen idol Bobby Darin, was panned as a "vanity project", Cloaca, his first production as artistic director of the Old Vic, was panned, his claim that he had been mugged while walking his dog in a park at four in the morning prompted much speculation; and he enraged audiences and fellow actors by saying sweets should be banned from theatres to prevent rustling. "If people don't know how to behave they shouldn't come," he said, and then backtracked by claiming he was only joking.

Many might have taken the low-risk route. Not Spacey. The Old Vic under his artistic direction decided on its first ever pantomime, and so the stage was set on Friday for the hugely anticipated opening of Aladdin, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Maureen Lipman. Friday night's preview had to be cancelled due to "technical difficulties". The morning after, critics were questioning if Spacey, 45, had taken on too much. David Benedict said: "He hasn't exactly had a run of luck recently.

"Although Kevin Spacey has enormous skills, maybe he doesn't yet have the right balance to be artistic director of a major theatre company. He knows how to do an awful lot of the job, but not all of it."

Being panto, it all came right in the end. In the theatre yesterday afternoon was a crowd that was willing the production to succeed, and, with audience participation like that, and a few cute ad-libs, the show triumphed.

Not that it went entirely without a hitch. Although the troubled mechanics of the cave scene that caused Friday's hiatus worked a treat (and got an ironic, but warm, cheer), not every piece of property behaved itself. Aladdin's carpet failed to take off at the end of the first half ("At this point I normally take off on my carpet but I'm now just going to go off stage left", joked Aladdin, played by Joe McFadden), the lamp was not to hand when wanted ("Hand me the fabled lamp - even if it is off-stage"), and the cake stand collapsed, leaving Maureen Lipman picking up the fancies. The audience thought it was all good panto fun.

The theatre, not surprisingly, was also giving Spacey staunch support. The Old Vic's marketing director Vivien Wallace, said: "No one ever cancels a show without a lot of soul-searching, especially with a pantomime where kids are involved. But it's not uncommon for a first preview to be cancelled. Kevin is such a hard worker.

"There is something hugely negative in the British psyche ... Here's a great actor who has chosen to come and try to make the Old Vic work and everybody is just waiting for him to make a mistake."

If the scenery holds, the carpet takes off and the cake-stand stays upright tonight, when many critics attend, Spacey will have an artisitic, as well as financial, hit on his hands. Aladdin has already sold out and taken in the region of £1.4m.

The real test for Spacey, however, is yet to come. Next year he takes the lead in both National Anthem and The Philadelphia Story. Spacey's Odyssey was never going to be a smooth ride, nor dull.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson