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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Cloaca
Old VicTheatre Autumn 2004

Cloaca is the best written, best acted, best directed new play I have seen on the London stage in ages. It will make you feel, make you laugh, make you think, and make you feel some more. It has a lot of truth to tell, and tells it with a stylishness that can be comic one moment and shocking the next.

Maria Goos's comedy-drama, already a hit in her native Holland, is a triumphal opening for the new Old Vic Theatre Company and bodes very well for Artistic Director Kevin Spacey's reign.

The play bears comparison to Yasmina Reza's Art (though it is far superior), in that both dissect and examine male psychology and the dynamics of male bonding by showing a group of old friends finding their relationships shaken and threatened (and there is undoubtedly some significance in the fact that both are written by women).

In this case, Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson), a 40-something minor government bureaucrat, finds his flat invaded by three guys who have been his and each other's buddies since student days. Jan (Hugh Bonneville) is a politician anticipating a major ministerial appointment, who has chosen this moment to leave his wife. Lawyer Tom (Adrian Lukis) has just come out of the mental hospital to which a combination of mania and cocaine had sent him.

Maarten (Neil Pearson) is a theatre director whose determinedly unconventional and uncommercial productions may just be a convenient way of seducing ever-younger actresses. And meanwhile Pieter has problems of his own -  for years he was allowed to take home some of the worthless art the government accumulated, and now that his collection is worth millions a ruinous scandal awaits.

Each of the four vacillates between total absorption in his own problems, sincere empathy and concern for the others and, in a few cases, cold-blooded look-out-for-number-one betrayal. And the power of play, direction and acting is that we believe and care about these men, not in spite of the abrupt changes and self-contradictions, but because we recognise how real and human such inconsistencies are.

Moving and thought-provoking things are said about the nature of friendship, about courage and cowardice, about the value of beauty in an ugly world, about self-examination and self-acceptance, about knowing or discovering (or discovering that you have always known) the kinds of truths that make sense out of life.

And a lot of it is very funny.

Much credit must go to director Kevin Spacey, who has clearly guided each of the four actors (There's also a comic and touching cameo by Ingeborga Dapkunaite as a stripper hired for a birthday party) to some of the finest work they've ever done, and to the actors themselves for finding and communicating the core of reality that makes each character come alive.

Is there anything to criticise? Well, it takes a while to get going, and the first half may seem like a string of unrelated character sketches in search of a play. For all its hard-edged insight into male psychology, there is a soft, sentimental heart to the play that wants a little too much for us to love all the characters even when they're being bastards.

And a pet peeve of mine - Robert Jones' otherwise striking set design leaves almost a third of the audience (those on the left as they face the action) unable to see the entire stage. Granted, not much of importance goes on in the corner they can't see, but it is annoying to have characters repeatedly move to and speak from what for many might as well be offstage.

Minor cavils, all. This is that rare species, a first-rate play that is also thoroughly accessible and entertaining. It will probably transfer and run for years, but just in case it doesn't, rush to see its limited run at the Old Vic.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cloaca - Old Vic 2004