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Mark Shenton’s top venues: The Old Vic, London

The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Last week it was the turn of the Bristol Old Vic — the oldest operating theatre in the country, this year celebrating its 250th anniversary — to appear in this column, and today I turn my attention to London’s Old Vic, which is a mere stripling in comparison. It was founded in 1818, and rebuilt in 1871, when it was renamed the Royal Victoria Palace. When a new owner took it over in 1880, it was again renamed the Royal Victoria Hall, but by this time it was already known locally as the Old Vic — a name that has stuck ever since.

Historically, it is one of the most important theatres in the country — not just because of its association with Lilian Baylis, the legendary producer and manager who also founded Sadler’s Wells, and set up — between here and Sadler’s — the companies that would become English National Opera, the Royal Ballet and the National Theatre: quite some legacy.

It was here at the Old Vic that the National formally had its first home under Laurence Olivier, from when it was founded in 1963 until it moved to its purpose-built home on the South Bank in 1976. But the theatre floundered badly after that move, and never really re-established a proper commercial foothold and artistic identity again until the arrival of Kevin Spacey as artistic director in 2003.

Other managements came and went in the intervening period — including Prospect Theatre Company, an arts council-funded touring outfit who also wanted a London foothold, but weren’t funded to appear in London so had to function as a commercial enterprise there. That was a tall order and the theatre and company sank into debt, with artistic director Toby Robertson effectively fired in 1980, and replaced by Timothy West, who didn’t fare much better, with shows that included the notorious debacle of Macbeth starring Peter O’Toole that has gone down in the record books for its sheer awfulness.

Remembering O’Toole in an obituary piece for Newsweek when he died in 2013, Nicholas Wapshott (who had written a biography of the actor) wrote that Macbeth “was so chaotic and the reviews so dreadful that audiences flocked to see what was to be a collectors’ item in the history of bad performances.”

But the show was also the essence of O’Toole:

So many people lined up to see it, the run was extended; It went on tour around Britain, where it played to sold-out crowds, then came back into the Vic for a second triumphant run. That was one of the joys of O’Toole – he could sometimes be so bad he was very good. Or, to put it another way, no movie or play with O’Toole in it was all bad.

But Prospect was doomed — and gave its final season at the Old Vic in 1981. The theatre then went on the market — and, amid fears that it might be turned into a lap-dancing club (or worse), a Canadian discount store entrepreneur and theatrical producer called Ed Mirvish outbid Andrew Lloyd Webber to buy it in 1982 for a reported £550,000, before spending some £2.5m on refurbishing it. While the work was being carried out, he famously erected a sign on the scaffolding reading: “Lilian Baylis, you’re going to love this. Honest Ed.” He would later receive a CBE for his efforts in saving the theatre.

He and his son David Mirvish, who took a more hands-on role in the theatrical management side, owned the theatre for 16 years, during which time various artistic directors were put in charge: Jonathan Miller directed 17 shows between 1987 and 1990, and Peter Hall also based his eponymous company there for a time after he left the NT, staging revivals of his NT hit Amadeus (that subsequently went back to Broadway, with David Suchet as Salieri and Michael Sheen as Mozart) and Waiting for Godot (with Ben Kingsley), as well as new plays that were curated by Dominic Dromgoole, between his time at the Bush and his subsequent arrival at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The Old Vic interior. Photo: Philip Vile
The Old Vic interior. Photo: Philip Vile

But it was still difficult for the Old Vic to know where it sat in the theatrical ecology as it sometimes also merely functioned as an alternative West End transfer house. (Matthew Warchus’ Life x 3 would move here from the National). Geographically, of course, it sits at one remove from the West End — on the ‘wrong’ side of the river — but time and regeneration have caught up with it.

It is now just one of a series of thriving theatres on the south side of the river, in a zone that includes the National, the Young Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Menier Chocolate Factory and the Unicorn, with Nick Hytner and Nick Starr’s new London Theatre Company at Tower Bridge set to join them in 2017. A number of fringe theatres are also in the area, including the Union (soon to relocate to new premises across the street from the railway arch site it currently occupies), Southwark Playhouse and the ghostly Vaults below Waterloo station – which the Old Vic briefly ran as a home for more experimental theatre.

That new burst of theatrical energy was in no small part due to the Old Vic itself, which got a shot of Hollywood allure when Kevin Spacey became its artistic director in 2003, after first transferring there in an Almeida production of The Iceman Cometh in 1998. Spacey’s regime began rockily, with a disastrous new play that he directed called Cloaca — but he held his nerve and resolve, even amid a call from prominent newspaper critic Nicholas de Jongh for his scalp. Spacey appeared as the lead of shows such as The Philadelphia Story, Richard II, Richard III, A Moon for the Misbegotten (which transferred to Broadway),  Speed-the-Plow and Clarence Darrow. Under his watch, the theatre become a major home for stellar revivals. Other directors and stars would also be lured here, including Matthew Warchus with a triple bill of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that also transferred to Broadway.

Last year Spacey was succeeded by Warchus, who announced a bold new plan to increase the number of productions — the theatre used to produce only four or five shows a year — but for shorter runs. As he said in a Big Interview for The Stage: “All I’ve got to offer is productions. I can’t walk out on the stage and fill the theatre the way Kevin did with star power. My contribution will be productions, so it makes sense to do a bunch of them.”

That’s exactly what has been happening on the Cut since his arrival. His own new production of Pinter’s The Caretaker, starring Timothy Spall, has just opened, and will be followed in May by a new show from Drew McOnie, who has just won the Olivier for best choreographer for In the Heights, directing and choreographing new dance piece Jekyll and Hyde. Then comes Groundhog Day, a new musical from Tim Minchin, who wrote the score to Matilda, which Warchus also directed, opening in July.

There’s hardly a more exciting – or more eclectic – theatre programme in London.


The Old Vic

The Cut, London SE1 8NB
Box Office: 0844 871 7628

Artistic director: Matthew Warchus
Chief executive: Sally Greene

Executive director: Kate Varah
Finance director: Conor Marren
Executive director of development: Vivien Wallace

Director, Old Vic New Voices: Alexander Ferris
Head of education and community: Hannah Fosker
Production manager: Dominic Fraser
Creative producer: Georgia Gatti
Development director: Natasha Harris
Head of corporate development: Olivia Highland

Head of theatre operations: Dan Kujawski
Head of wardrobe: Fiona Lehmann
Casting director: Jessica Ronane
General manager Tara Wilkinson

Associate artists: Simon Baker, Peter Darling, David Grindrod, Manuel Harlan, Rob Howell, Dennis Kelly, Paul Kieve, Drew McOnie, Tim Minchin, Christopher Nightingale, Kate Prince, Hugh Vanstone

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