A stinker? Critics pan Spacey's Old Vic debut

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The Independent Online

When Sir Laurence Olivier made the Old Vic in London the base of the embryonic National Theatre, he opened with Hamlet.

When Sir Laurence Olivier made the Old Vic in London the base of the embryonic National Theatre, he opened with Hamlet.

Four decades later, Kevin Spacey, the film star, selected an unknown play from the Netherlands to open his first season as artistic director of the historic venue.

The weight of expectation on both was enormous and the wisdom of both directors' choices was the subject of debate. Compared with the roll call of theatrical greats, Peter O'Toole's turn as the angst-ridden Danish prince did not convince all the critics.

But judging by the overnight reviews for Cloaca by Maria Goos, a tried and tested play from an acknowledged master may have been a better choice to kick start the ambitious plan to resurrect the Old Vic as a thriving theatre.

For, despite widely admired performances from a cast including Hugh Bonneville, Neil Pearson and Stephen Tompkinson, the critics yesterday deemed the play a big mistake.

Featuring four college friends in their forties and facing a sea of troubles, including impotence, insanity and marital breakdown, it turns on the dilemma of Pieter (played by Tompkinson), who is asked to return now-valuable paintings he was given as birthday presents in a dull job in local government.

With (unseen) paintings at the heart of the drama, the play provoked unfortunate comparison's with Yasmina Reza's West End favourite, Art.

Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express said it would have been "unthinkable for a theatre director even as new to the game as Spacey" to choose Cloaca had it not been for Art's worldwide success.

Charles Spencer in The Times wrote: "Whereas Reza's play was neat, elegant, touching and true, Cloaca seems strained, muddled and often jaw-droppingly improbable."

The title, which means "sewer" in Latin, also offered newspapers low strikes at Spacey. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed: "Spacey's down in the gutter with this stinker". Its reviewer, Benedict Nightingale, lamented the play's lack of originality and tension.

Michael Billington, of The Guardian, said it was "a sitcom with attitude" and complained he could not believe in the past friendship of the four men. On the redeeming side, The Independent's Paul Taylor spoke for many when he concluded: "Spacey's production is punchily acted and nicely modulated."

David Liddiment, formerly ITV's director of programmes and now the Old Vic's producer, who discovered the play in the Netherlands, was sticking by it yesterday.

"I think it's a great play served beautifully by these five actors and by Kevin who has done a superlative job directing it," he said.

"It's very accessible and it resonates very powerfully with an audience. That's the experience we've had [in preview]. People who have paid their money to come to the theatre have given us standing ovations and rounds of applause.

"Obviously, in the light of that, to get these reviews is disappointing, but you've got to be stoical about it. Ticket sales have taken off in a major way."

Terri Paddock, of the whatsonstage.com theatre website, said Spacey should be applauded for taking a risk in a venue which receives no public subsidy and needs major upkeep.

"He could have chosen something really safe and he didn't. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But there's a great buzz around the place," she said.

There was much to be positive about in the rest of the season, which includes Spacey acting in The Philadelphia Story and Sir Ian McKellen in Cinderella.

Mr Paddock added: "Great reigns often have very shaky starts. But the rest of the season still looks really exciting."