After five months of darkness, the premature closure of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues and acres of negative media coverage about Kevin Spacey’s tenure as artistic director, the Old Vic needed a hit. And it got one resoundingly last night (26 September 2006, previews from 15 September) when Howard Davies’s new production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1947 American classic A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring Olivier Award winner Eve Best opposite Spacey himself, opened.

Josie (Best), a towering woman with a quick tongue and a ruined reputation, lives in a dilapidated Connecticut farmhouse with her conniving father, Phil Hogan (Meaney). Together they’re a formidable force as they scrape together a livelihood. But Josie’s softer side is exposed through her love of Jim Tyrone (Spacey), Hogan’s landlord and drinking buddy, a third-rate actor whose dreams of stardom were washed away by alcohol. One night, they find solace in each others’ arms, and their true feelings are revealed.

Overnight critics were unanimous in their praise of the production, with all awarding four stars and commenting the play could mark a turn-around in the fortunes of the Old Vic, following its damning reviews for Resurrection Blues and subsequent summer closure. They were highly impressed with the performances of Best and Spacey in particular, mooting them for accolades in the forthcoming awards season.

The pair are joined in the cast of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Colm Meaney, as Phil Hogan, as well as Eugene O'Hare and Billy Carter. The production continues its limited season until 23 December 2006.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) – “In this tremendous, riveting revival…. Eve Best makes no attempt to play the ‘ugly overgrown lump of a woman’ of the stage directions. The performance irradiates outwards, transfiguring the physical realities of appearance in spiritual revelation. The same applies to Phil, whom Colm Meaney presents not as the usual gruff, wizened old Irish bugger… but as a beacon of irascible, paternal decency lit up from within…. The scene is then set for the third act moonlit encounter where two lost souls are released in forgiveness as Jamie recounts his guilt and shame at sleeping with a $50 whore on the train bearing his mother’s coffin back east. Jamie is redeemed, but so is Josie, who acquires a maternal, mythical role while cradling the human wreckage in her capacious lap. It is one of the most affecting pietas in modern drama…. Best… plays every scene for its full emotional worth, and fills the stage with resonating goodness without setting our teeth on edge (always the danger with this role). And Spacey… inhabits Jamie without fuss and with the true understanding of an actor who gets under the skin of a flawed character and shows how he battles with demons and teeters on the edge of the abyss. A great play is restored with great acting.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “The highlight of the Spacey regime to date…. Eve Best makes no pretence at being the ungainly, 180-lb figure O'Neill describes in his stage directions. Instead, her Josie is a hard-working rustic slave who has grown used to hiding her feelings and who deflects every compliment with a shy, nervous laugh. It is a beautiful performance, about the pain of living a constant lie, perfectly matched by Spacey's Jim…. Above all, Spacey reminds you that Tyrone is a one-time actor who masks his self-loathing under the carapace of the constant drinker. Spacey grasps each glass of bourbon like a drowning man and even flinches when offered water. But the brilliance of his performance is its suggestion that even this is a public act designed to hide the remorse he feels over his shameful behaviour when accompanying his mother's funeral coffin. Watching Best and Spacey together is like seeing two desperate people stripping their souls naked. Bob Crowley's ramshackle rural set and Colm Meaney's self-deceptive Hogan lend weight to a production that offers that rarest of theatrical treats: an evening of raw, powerful emotion.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (4 stars) - “Howard Davies’ revival, with Kevin Spacey and Eve Best ablaze at its epicentre, is both a major triumph and, inevitably, a bit of a failure. It proves impossible to disguise that the play is an awkward mix of rustic laugh-in and searing confessional, but it’s equally impossible to miss the force of the long denouement that only O’Neill had the passion and power to create. In the half-dark, the two protagonists do what O’Neill characters find so difficult. They shed their protective masks and ditch their life-lies. Josie’s pretence is that she’s hard, mean and slatternly when, as she now reveals, she’s actually virginal and vulnerable. Spacey’s disguise is subtler, deeper: he’s a sensitive man escaping from pain and remorse in a mix of cynicism and booze…. It’s hard to believe the self-disgust that Spacey brings to the confessional; but then his whole performance, like Best’s, is superb. From the moment he trudges on stage, you feel you’re seeing a dead man walking…. Is there better acting to be found anywhere? I’d be surprised.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “A hit was desperately required. Fortunately, that's exactly what the theatre has achieved with this tremendous, often shatteringly powerful production…. The dramatist's last play brings together the dream O'Neill team of Spacey, Best and Davies… It… wrenches the heart like few other 20th-century dramas…. Jim was based on O'Neill's own brother, and the role offers an actor a chance to interpret one of the most harrowing, and accurate, portraits of alcoholism ever written. Spacey seizes all his chances. When we first meet him, his thirst for the booze seems comic, but this extraordinarily charismatic actor gradually lays bare a man enduring a living death…. More movingly still, Eve Best gives one of the most beautiful accounts of aching, unconditional love I have ever seen as she listens to his confessions, cradles his head against her breast, admits to her own long denied virginity and finally, devastatingly, understands that love is sometimes ineffective against the worst horrors of this world…. With strong and often richly comic support from Colm Meaney as Josie's sly old Irish father, atmospheric designs by Bob Crowley and a wonderful score from Dominic Muldowney, this is a show that finally finds the Old Vic crowned in glory.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Spacey the producer has gathered just the right team to do justice to a play that time has proved to be a work of shattering genius…. Howard Davies is the greatest British interpreter of O'Neill. And he has worked before with Eve Best and Kevin Spacey, to massive acclaim, on work by this dramatist…. Spacey's superb performance shows you a man who tries to hide his haunted alcoholic despair behind the jauntily cynical front of a Broadway ‘lad’. As the seemingly tough, joshing tomboy-like Josie, Eve Best in her heart-stopping performance, reveals a woman with a life-giving capacity for love and virginal tenderness who has had to adopt the pose of a promiscuous hoyden…. The actors appear to have achieved the deep rapport experienced by the characters…. The lacerating twist is that, while he understands and loves Josie better than anyone, James incubates a mother-centred self-hatred that prevents them ever achieving lasting happiness…. Here is a man who is a psychological corpse already and, though it destroys everything she had ever wanted, she gives him permission to depart and die. Exquisitely judged in terms of lighting, shifts of mood and undulating pattern of raised and dashed hopes.… This marvellous evening gives one the sense that they have learned by their past mistakes and may go on to a thrilling future.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell