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Michael Coveney: 'Matthew Warchus is a great appointment for the Old Vic'

Our chief critic responds to the announcement that Warchus is to succeed Kevin Spacey

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Swing when you're winning: Warchus' production of Matilda the Musical

Matthew Warchus is a great appointment as Kevin Spacey's successor at the Old Vic, ticking several important boxes: his career credentials are impeccable; he's one of the few genuine contenders to compare with such commonly named (though never confirmed) candidates as Sam Mendes and Kenneth Branagh; and he marks the new way of doing things.

The peak of a director's ambition would once be signalled by running the National Theatre or the RSC. But ever since those monoliths have been spurned - or, at least, not considered - by the obvious likes of Mendes, Stephen Daldry, Deborah Warner, Marianne Elliott, Declan Donnellan, Michael Grandage and, most recently, Rupert Goold, it's become clear that today's star directors don't want the hassle of the subsidised monolith. Which is why the RSC is lucky to have Gregory Doran and the National, Rufus Norris.

There's also a sense, certainly with Goold at the Almeida, that the rightful successors to Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn don't need the kudos of the top job, or any residual sense of civic responsibility, to create their own commercially, as well as artistically, rewarding environment. Warchus will have much more flexibility and control of his own career than will Norris, though his close association with the RSC over many years has yielded that company's biggest hit since Les Misérables, Matilda.

Warchus was certainly the next "big thing" to emerge after Mendes and Daldry, delivering some wonderful work at the RSC including a genuinely radical Hamlet with Alex Jennings which used film footage of the hero's dead father. His interest in the supernatural continued in Ghost the Musical, as good a production of so-so musical theatre material as you could hope to see, though the less said of the galumphing Lord of the Rings at Drury Lane the better.

"Warchus was certainly the next 'big thing' to emerge after Mendes and Daldry"

There was a wonderful ghostliness, too, about his Broadway revival of Sondheim's Follies (generally derided by the New York critics) which unleashed the haunted poignancy of the passing show in the atmospheric echo chamber of the old Belasco Theatre. Significantly, Warchus met his wife, Lauren Ward, in that cast, and they now have three children.

He's worked with Mark Rylance on two of that actor's most brilliant performances – in La Bête, and the sensational rediscovery of an old West End warhorse, Boeing-Boeing; it's impossible to imagine that he won't bring Rylance to the Old Vic some time soon, and the partnership could prove the most potent since Peter Brook's with Paul Scofield, or Trevor Nunn's with Ian McKellen.

The more I think about it, and as the RSC continues to dither over its London home and profile, Warchus at the Old Vic has a real chance of re-establishing the grand old lady of the Waterloo Road as the home of the best British actors in the finest international repertoire, stealing a march on Norris at the National and rivalling the Globe in the city's affection.