Mark Shenton: Has Kevin Spacey saved his best idea for last at the Old Vic?

Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic in 2014. Photo: Manuel Harlan Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic in 2014. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Kevin Spacey, newly given an honorary knighthood for his services to British theatre, hasn’t just restored the fortunes of the Old Vic — one of our most venerable of all London theatres — as a thriving concern, but he’s also done a lot more to nurture and promote younger talent.

I was, I have to admit, no fan of the Old Vic Tunnels, the ghastly, seriously decrepit subterranean venue the Old Vic took over beneath Waterloo station, but others enjoyed the shabby environs more than I did.

But if that was another public face of what the Old Vic brand stood for, it also showed that it was  about more than just starry productions in an old Victorian theatre.  And through Old Vic New Voices, which Spacey set up soon after he took over the theatre, it has long sought to champion and nurture emerging talent. An annual celebrity public event – The Old Vic 24 Hour Plays – provided a fundraising platform for it that also fulfilled those aims, but I never went to it – it was far too expensive to actually attend, reinforcing an idea of the venue as the plaything of the rich.

That may have been unfair, as young talent got to rub shoulders with the famous and glamorous and work with them. But it seems to me that the far more grass roots Old Vic New Voices Festival, which started last Friday and runs through to July 24, could yet produce more lasting results. And it’s on offer to the public, for free, as well as industry notables.

During the festival, supported by the TS Eliot estate and the arts council, some 12 plays by emerging playwrights from the UK and US, each of them commissioned by the theatre, are being workshopped and presented in a series of afternoon readings on the Old Vic stage.

The festival’s 22-year-old producer David Adkin had originally applied to be one of the six young producers who are producing two plays each in the festival, and was asked to oversee the entire season. In his words:

Kevin [Spacey] is passionate about supporting young people and sending the elevator back down, as he says. Theatres have a responsibility for the next generation, and we need to develop new work and invest in emerging writers and directors.

The key here is investment. Whereas the young writers, directors, producers and actors they employ regularly do their own thing on the London fringe, there’s typically little or no money in it. But here everyone is being paid in a festival that’s costing some £140,000 to stage. “It’s quite an undertaking and an investment,” says Adkin.

But it also confers a unique kind of legitimacy on its participants. “I felt that for the first time when I was given a Stage One bursary, and again now that I’m doing this. Some 300 producers and 400 directors applied to be involved. We also saw 1,150 actors in open audition to be part of the season.

About six or seven actors were cast from the open auditions, but the companies doing the plays also include such well-known names as Richard Madden, Georgina Lamb, Carly Bawden, Marc Elliot, Rebecca Scroggs and Michael Fenton Stevens.

That increases the profile of the festival and the work. If I did a reading at Jerwood Space, say, we wouldn’t necessarily get the guest list we have for this. And we hope some of them take the plays on and do something with them.

Each play has two days rehearsal, followed by a morning on the stage of the Old Vic before performing it that afternoon. For the writers, who include Olivier Award nominee James Fritz and Jake Brunger, it affords them a chance to get their work on a West End stage for the first time – and puts it in front of a real audience.

As Spacey bows out of the Old Vic and Matthew Warchus takes over, it’s a great final send-off from an enterprise he set up. I’m looking forward to going later this week.