The Iceman Cometh at the Old Vic

Note: This production transfers, with the original cast, to the Old Vic for a limited run from 19 June to 1 August 1998, following its initial run at the Almeida Theatre.

It used to be said of a bar in northern England that it could never be fire-bombed because the occupants would drink the petrol before it had time to explode. Eugene O Neill must have had just such a bar in mind when he wrote The Iceman Cometh.

In the new production of O Neill s classic at the Almeida, director Howard Davies and designer Bob Crowley have conjured up a bar in which the most desperate drink their hours away. And yet, despite the characters drunken despondence, all of them have tales to tell of their past lives, their hopes and their dreams and they retain a certain camaraderie.

Into this manifestation of Cheers as drawn by Gorky steps Hickie, the wise-cracking, high-rolling travelling salesman making his yearly pilgrimage to Harry s bar. The drinkers, who have been awaiting his arrival eagerly, find their hopes dashed when he sets about trying to reform them, stopping their drinking (not something that unduly bothered O Neill) and forcing them to face up to reality and stop waiting for tomorrows. But Hickie has a terrible secret to tell and, in the (long) telling of it, forces the rest of the cast to reveal more about themselves.

As Hickie, Kevin Spacey brilliantly conveys his own worthlessness and his need to help his fellow drinkers. A top-class salesman, he prides himself in his ability to ‘read people and sell them his vision of how they should be. It s a part that could easily be over-played, but Spacey moves stealthily through the drunken ranks, cajoling, pleading and hectoring them to his view.

Running at four and a quarter hours, The Iceman Cometh is not an easy night but don t be daunted by its length; this is ensemble playing at its very best. (My only quibble would be with the variable quality of some of the American accents.) It s almost unfair to single out members of the cast, but I particularly enjoyed Tim Pigott-Smith, cast against type as a disillusioned, sozzled old anarchist.

The Almeida have pulled off another superb production of a major play.

Maxwell Cooter