It’s hard to imagine a West End play opening creating more of a hoopla than this – and certainly not one centred around its director. But then, not since Laurence Olivier has the Old Vic – or anywhere else for that matter – had an artistic director (an actor-manager one at that) as high-profile as Kevin Spacey, who became so enamoured of this historic theatre that he put his Hollywood film career on hold to move to London and run it.
In the process, Spacey has brought a little Hollywood glitz with him to London’s Waterloo, where the programmes are published by Condé Nast (complete with designer fashion adverts and a whopping £5 price tag) and, on the first night, an army of photographers and TV camera crews were on hand to capture the undeniable buzz.
Unfortunately, once the audience is settled in their seats, the excitement of “history in the making” is soon dispelled. You have to admire Spacey for risking launching his inaugural season with a new play. If only he’d chosen a really good play, or even a passably good one. Either way, Cloaca - Dutch writer Maria Goos’ tragi-comedy about four middle-class men in the grips of mid-life crises - isn’t it.
In a stylish loft apartment in Amsterdam (designed by Robert Jones), naïve Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson) is facing crisis. Over the past 21 years, he’s tolerated his job as a civil servant thanks to the annual birthday perk of helping himself to a painting from the council’s rejected art depository. Now, it turns out, the paintings are worth something and the council wants them back.
In between rants about their own personal problems (divorce, bankruptcy, impotence, addiction, suicide and so on), his friends – highly ambitious and ideologically flexible politician Jan (Hugh Bonneville) and coke-frenzied manic depressive ex-lawyer Tom (Adrian Lukis) – are on hand to help him out, blackmailing and litigating as necessary.
The fourth of their quartet is the avant garde theatre director Maarten (Neil Pearson), whose pretentious musings on his own artistic failings too often give voice to audience thoughts while watching Cloaca - “what is this play actually about?” he asks and then answers, “yes, it’s all contrivance”. Russian actress Ingeborke Dapkunaite briefly joins the party for a Madness homage and striptease.
Apparently, Cloaca was a hit in Goos’ native Holland, where it was also made into a TV film. So, let’s be generous and assume that a lot – though by no means all - in this British premiere can be blamed on the terrible translation (a literal one prepared by poet Paul Evans was then hammered into shape by producer David Liddiment and Goos herself, who admits her English is “not too good”), in which the characters repeatedly refer to themselves as either dickheads, complete shits or cowards when not pointing out that, actions to the contrary, they’ve been friends for more than 20 years.
(Incidentally, the script never reveals the meaning of the title. You’ll have to buy the £5 programme to learn that it is a “waste-pipe that carries away sewage”.)
Given the awkward material, it’s not surprising that even a cast of this calibre struggle. The four men talk about feelings a lot but rarely manage to generate any. All in all, it’s a disappointing start to Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic reign. Bring on Ian McKellen’s Widow Twankey.
- Terri Paddock