Cloaca @ The Old Vic, London

cast list
Stephen Tompkinson
Hugh Bonneville
Adrian Lukis
Neil Pearson

directed by
Kevin Spacey
The first production of Kevin Spacey’s stint as artistic director at the Old Vic is a cryptically-titled tale of male friendship by the Dutch playwright Maria Goos.

Cloaca is Latin for sewer, and has generally fecal connotations, but this fact is never mentioned in the play. Actually the meaning of the term is left purposefully ambiguous; Goos uses it as the matey greeting call of her main characters, four old friends, pals since university, now middle-aged.

Stephen Tompkinson (Brassed Off, Drop the Dead Donkey) plays Pieter a gay civil servant living a quiet, solitary life in Amsterdam. One of the greatest pleasures in his life is the collection of unwanted paintings that he’s rescued over the years from the city’s art depositary. Faced with prospect of having to return them he is understandably distraught and it is during this crisis that his former friends are drawn back into his life.

Jan (Hugh Bonneville) is an ambitious politician with a marriage on the rocks, a man who is both endearingly pompous and deeply self-involved. On hearing of Pieter’s art-related predicament he is quick to call in another of their friends, Tom (Adrian Lukis) a lawyer with a rather hazy hold on reality, to handle the case. The quartet is completed by Maarten – a delightfully sleazy Neil Pearson – an arrogant theatre director with a considerable collection of sexual issues.

Cloaca’scasting, at least, is top-notch. The actors have a solid rapport and there’s a real sense of shared memory between them, of good times spent in each others’ company – and also of shared regret.

Lukis has the showiest role, bristling with nervous energy, and Bonneville is equally convincing, managing to make the ruthless Jan momentarily sympathetic, supplying a real sense of the man he used to be – the man he could almost have been.

However it’s Tompkinson who holds everything together, excellent as the deceptively solid and stable Pieter. And for her brief but pivotal interjection into this play’s very male world, Ingeborge Dapkunite steals the play’s most entertaining scene.

Everything plods along amiably but fairly uneventfully until the interval, but in the shorter second act things turn distinctly darker; betrayals are revealed and friendships fray.

Kevin Spacey’s direction draws a fair amount of humour from this blackly comic material but with the second act comes a shift in tone and events spiral rapidly towards an awkwardly abrupt and very bleak conclusion.

After the easy banter and emotional revelations that preceded, this final stretch seems rather forced, rushed even, as if there was uncertainty over how to bring the story to a close.

Throughout Cloaca, Maria Goos makes some occasionally astute observations about men and masculinity, but most of the time she’s unduly harsh and judgemental. Ultimately all these years of friendship count for little in her world, these characters can only disappoint one another, they seem destined to let each other down.

Her play, here receiving its British premiere, seems a very unusual choice by Kevin Spacey for his Old Vic debut. A rather flat tale of men in middle age that too closely resmebles Yazmin Reza’s overrated Art. The performances are excellent however and do much to compensate for the thinness of the material.

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