Although I don't consider myself to be a theatre buff, this is one of the theatres I have been to the most often. The main draw of this theatre originally was the curiosity of having a Hollywood actor (Kevin Spacey) become Creative Director of a little known theatre on the south bank of the Thames, which is not near the West End, and not likely to attract many tourists. As the crow flies, it's only about 12 miles away from where I live, but prior to Mr Spacey's appointment, I confess I had never been there, nor knew much of it's history.
~ Some history ~
It's heritage is something The Old Vic is rightly very proud of. All the great stage actors Britain has produced have at one time or another played here, including: John Gielgud; Ralph Richardson; Peggy Ashcroft; Charles Laughton; Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It was probably this rich heritage which convinved Kevin Spacey to transfer the play he was in called The Iceman Cometh to this theatre and not one more centrally located, from Broadway in 1998.
In 1998 it was acquired by The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000 who are it's current owners, desperately in need of restoration and in order to keep it from becoming, reportedly, a lap-dancing club. The Trust is a registered charity set up by West End producer Sally Greene and with notables such as Elton John on the board. Ms Greene is a savvy businesswoman and has been responsible for bringing many shows to the West End, most notably Billy Elliot.
~ location ~
In the London Borough of Lambeth and just a stone's throw away from the River Thames, the Old Vic is located in a road called The Cut, and within a few hundred yards of Waterloo Station. More detailed public transport arrangements can be found on the theatre's own website, as every time I've been here I've driven. Which brings me on to London's Congestion Charge. For those not familiar, you will have to pay £8 on the day, leave it any later and you might be subject to an exorbitant penalty charge. My friend and I usually park in a nearby NCP car park and walk the 10 minutes to The Cut. I usually arrive in plenty of time for a performance so have a snack and a coffee in Caffé Nero or one of the other cafes which are further down the road before heading to the theatre.
It falls to Mr Spacey to decide what plays to perform here, and so far the reviews have been mixed. I, personally, have seen National Anthems, the Philadelphia Story, and Richard II, which was directed by Trevor Nunn.
As you approach, the theatre is rectangular in shape, and unassuming to look, reminding me of an old Victorian warehouse. The side of the theatre fronting the busier Waterloo Road contains an entrance to the stalls for wheelchair users and another to the Pit Bar, which is in the basement. The Stage Door is located on the other side of the theatre, on the quiet Webber Street. I have only queued once afterwards to have my programme autographed. The porched entrance contains large photos of the actors involved in the play currently showing, and you enter via a few steps. Inside the foyer, there is a small box office which when I've been there has been manned by two or three staff, however I've always had my tickets posted to me so haven't ever had to queue here. Here's where a few young staff members sell programmes beforehand too.
We found ourselves in the front row of the Dress Circle for Richard II so in order to get to our seats we had to walk up nearly 30 steps. No doubt they're trying to make access easier for those needing wheelchairs or the less able bodied, but for the time being the stalls (ground floor level seating) are the only easy access seats you'll find here, if you can manage the three or four steps, given that the theatre's nearly 200 years old and major refurbishment would probably cost the earth.
It never fails to surprise me how small the theatre looks once you're sitting down, considering I've heard Kevin Spacey say that it seats 1000 people. If you look up you'll see a huge chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling. It looks gorgeous and very expensive, but I have it on good authority it's only a cheap copy.
All you saw on stage at the start of Richard II was a crown on top of a column inside a tall gilt and glass enclosure. I thought what harm could I do to take a photo of that? After all, the audience were still wandering around making their way to their seats and the show wasn't ready to start yet. So I did. And the flash went off on the camera. And before you could say hey presto, a male staff member was standing at the end of my row glaring at me. What me? It must have been someone else further down the row taking photos. Tsk tsk. Anyhow, suffice it to say, I managed to keep my camera and stay in my seat to watch the performance. I can understand perfectly why the performers don't want any interruptions once the play starts, but really, where's the harm in taking a picture of an inanimate object beforehand? I can only assume it's for copyright purposes, which is why I won't be uploading it to this review. You will have to make do with a photo of the Stage Door entrance instead.
As for the performance, it was magnificent. Although the dialogue is all Shakespearean, on paper it might be hard work, but the ease with which the actors spoke and the quick flow meant you could understand everything they were saying.
I should point out that there are various ticket prices with concessions for students and senior citizens. The Old Vic also has special concessions for the under 25's at £12 a ticket, and for those who live locally in Lambeth or neighbouring Southwark. Where else could you see top quality actors perform at £12? Prices for tickets vary from show to show, so you will have to check the Old Vic website for more details.
All in all, I think this is a theatre well worth visiting. Although it's slightly off the beaten track as theatre's go, it can't be hard to reach with Waterloo station just around the corner.
~ Afternote ~
In response to Mr Hogsflesh's comment, I bow to his better knowledge as I've not been to the National Theatre since 1984 or '85! However, I would like to point out that probably one of the reasons that the National's tickets are cheaper (and maybe therefore, better value) is because the NT is eligible for public funding in the form of a very large Arts grant whilst the Old Vic is not. This, I believe, has been a bone of contention with the people working at the Vic including Mr Spacey. As to whether any theatre, or indeed any Arts venue, should receive public funding, is a whole other topic, and probably best left for better brains than mine!