Showing now at the Old Vic: Isn't Kevin Simply Wonderful?

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Thursday 06 February 2003 01:00

The occasion may have lacked the confrontational drama of The Iceman Cometh and missed the epic emotionalism of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, but it was pretty awesome. At London's venerable Old Vic theatre yesterday, a packed audience of arts journalists, photographers and TV people (most of them seated on the carpet like children at storytime) were treated to a starry display of ensemble acting in a one-off entertainment called Isn't Kevin Spacey Simply Wonderful?

It was flagged as a press conference, at which the sleek, double-Oscar-winning American actor would announce his appointment as artistic director of the all-new "Old Vic Theatre Company", which will start in autumn 2004 and feature Spacey in two productions every season as actor and director. But this was much more than a press do.

The Old Vic's management and powerful friends pulled out all the stops. Behind a desk groaning with jars of Smarties, jelly babies and marshmallows, the cream of the theatre establishment bombarded Spacey with saccharined tributes.

Elton John, the chairman of the Theatre Trust (sporting a sparkly diamond CND medal), called the appointment "a new chapter in our history – and that of British acting". Sally Greene, the Vic's glamorous, perma-smiling chief executive, said: "Very few people can bring oxygen into a room, even fewer can bring it on to a stage. Kevin Spacey does both," making the star of American Beauty and LA Confidential sound as if he were a Holby City paramedic. Dame Judi Dench beamed maternally. A red-faced Lord Attenborough promised to lobby the Arts Council about the Old Vic's roof.

Stephen Daldry, possibly preoccupied with theOscar nominations next week (his film The Hours is expected to win Best Picture) said nothing beyond admitting that the musical of Billy Elliot (music by Sir Elton) would not be staged at the Old Vic. Howard Davies, who directed Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, glared at the paparazzi.

David Liddiment, the serious ex-boss of the ITV network, invited to comment on his new role as the Old Vic Theatre Company's producer, told the actor: "Your passion and commitment, your drive and your belief are so inspiring. If I can help to realise your dream, I will be fulfilled." The whiff of Bible-Belt management-speak was overpowering.

Spacey will continue to make films, but will spend the lion's share of his time in London. "I will make time," he promised. "I'll be moving here. Let's face it, I'm an Anglophile." His interest in the theatre was stimulated by his parents' theatre trips to London when he was about seven – some of them to see Shakespeare at the Old Vic. "To have grown up to act on the stage was a dream come true. To find myself in the role of director of the Old Vic theatre is beyond my wildest imaginings."

Some controversy surrounded the name of Matthew Warchus, who was apparently confirmed as the artistic director this time last year. In answer to a question, Greene explained that, au contraire, Warchus's title was associate director of the theatre, and that he had fallen in love in New York but was returning. "He rang up this morning and said, 'I want to work with Kevin Spacey'," Greene confirmed.

Spacey became involved with the theatre after appearing in The Iceman Cometh, and has been a board member for four years. In 2001, he was ringmaster of a fund-raising gala show at the Old Vic in aid of Manhattan's firefighters.

And last night he was due to host, and star in, a Grand Concert featuring Elton John, Sting, Elvis Costello, Lulu, Sinead O'Connor and others. Was he planning to sing? "I'll decide after the technical rehearsals," said the Old Vic's new boss. Somehow you know that, even if he sang like Saddam Hussein, none of his new theatrical pals would dream of mentioning it.

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