Underneath the arches

Despite a distinct lack of signage, and any helpful information inside or outside the theatre, I found my way last night to a spooky new venue underneath Waterloo Station, the Old Vic Tunnels.

Kevin Spacey and co have taken on this dank and smelly warren of arches and brick walls to mount installations and experimental productions throughout this year, and I applaud their adventurousness.

I just hope the public does, too, if they can find the place.

An oddly organic crowd gathered for Beth Steel’s impressive debut play, Ditch. Ah, that’s why I’d misread all the usherettes wearing T-shirts; I thought they proclaimed “Bitch.”  

Who were these jolly culture vultures who all seemed to know each other and even included the former Labour cabinet minister Ruth Kelly in their ranks?

I turned in confusion in the interval to Joyce Hytner, Nick’s mother, who is on the board of High Tide, the Suffolk-based producing company that counts the Old Vic’s Sally Greeene, Sinead Cusack, David Hare and Bill Nighy as its patrons.

“They’re the sponsors,” she told me, suprised at my social ignorance, “and they’re all from Lansons Communications, the financial PR firm.”

Don’t you love it? A play about the end of the world sponsored by the participatory lackeys in its demise.

It turns out, though, that Lansons are “a good thing.” They give office space and rehearsal facilities to High Tide at their headquarters in Clerkenwell, and had bought out this performance completely for their staff, who quaffed free wine and beer in the interval and whooped with approval as the characters slit each others’ throats at the end.

The venue itself has the same sort of post-industrial atmosphere you find in the Viaduct in Halifax, or the Southwark Playhouse under London Bridge, or even the Arcola, and is even larger and more adaptable than any of those places.

You could do a promenade production of The Ring here, or King Lear, at least.

And it would be ideal for a new play cycle lasting all day and night: maybe that’s what the Old Vic is plannning…or a great sideshow vaudeville extravaganza, perhaps even Oh, What a Lovely (Iraqi) War! ….the bar looks promising, but we may need a hot dog stall and a blanket station.

Ditch is staged, slightly disappointingly, in one section only of the tunnels and may be said, therefore, to suffer from an acute fit of tunnel vision.

But it’s an exciting event, for sure, and could give Kevin Spacey just the sort of reinvigorating uplift he needs at this point in his, on the whole successful, tenure at the Old Vic.

I am amazed, though, that the programme note, in its Old Vic section, makes no mention of either Lilian Baylis or the National Theatre.

The “iconic building” housed great performances from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (in 1938, long before he ran the National there) to Ian McKellen’s Widow Twankey, we are told, but its status is really to do with its place in the artistic community of the capital, as Spacey well knows, and indeed is now largely maintaining.

Ditch is certainly a good follow-up to last year’s High Tide show, Stovepipe, in the shopping centre (not Westfield) opposite Shepherds Bush tube station.

What next? Life on Jupiter, sponsored by the Halifax, in the old bus depot, Neasden? Starring Kevin, Judi, Ian, Keira and Bono?

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