Kevin Spacey has never done a solo show before, or worked in the round. No problem: or, at least, no problem if you put the kind of thought, subtlety and energy into the production that he and Thea Sharrock have done with David Rintels' biographical play about Clarence Darrow (1857-1938).
The rebellious, firebrand defence lawyer fought for employment rights, passionately opposed the vicious racism of the establishment and defended even acknowledged murderers (as in the famous teenage Leopold and Loeb case) because of his passionate opposition to capital punishment - "A second murder, committed by the State". He won the teenagers life imprisonment even as a whole nation bayed for their blood. Even more topically for today, in the notorious 'Scopes Monkey' case he defended a teacher who broke a bigoted Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of Darwinian evolution. His client got a small token fine, but the eloquent ridicule of Darrow's cross-examination of a Bible scholar - the prosecution's chief attorney, cheekily - helped end the law. This cross-examination and others are re-enacted with bravura energy by Spacey as an old man remembering, addressing a cluttered office chair.
But how does this pretty straightforward biography work as a two-hour play, especially in the great arena of the Old Vic (reconfigured for the season in the round)? Amazingly well. Spacey prowls the aisles, treats the front rows as a jury, stays still only in his few moments of rueful reflection on his personal life and professional crises. He rises to thrilling rhetorical heights, finds (rather impressively in the cluttered office) photographs and documents to brandish, and throws out aphorisms which still ring strongly. South London, spreading around his theatre, can echo Darrow's line that the main causes of crime are 'Poverty, ignorance, hard luck and, generally, youth'.
A few lawyerly anecdotes lighten the earnestness of the mood: one defence lawyer elicited from a witness the admission that he didn't see the defendant bite off a man's ear. But fatally, asked a further question about why therefore he thinks he knew, the witness says "Because I saw him spit it out".
The spurts of laughter at such rare moments are all the more precious for coming in a piece of such moral seriousness, and from a man who - in Spacey's fascinated and fascinating portrayal - emerges as flawed, vain, manically theatrical but profoundly decent. We've been lucky to have him here these eleven years. He says he plans to stay in London after his Old Vic tenure ends next year. He'd better!
"Spacey prowls round the stage like a battered old prize fighter, constantly on the move as he buttonholes members of the audience, and radiates a charisma and a dramatic attack that is often spellbinding."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Darrow's claims to greatness as a battered but unbowed humanitarian find, in Spacey, the perfect advocate."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"... a mighty performance that brings out Darrow's bravura humanitarianism and it leaves one hoping that, even after Spacey hands over the Old Vic to Matthew Warchus next year, it will not be his farewell to the London stage."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"What an actor [Kevin Spacey]. He occupies the reconfigured Old Vic so completely that you wish they had left the house in its vast proscenium-arch format and allowed him to conquer that."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Informative rather than absorbing, it runs through Darrow’s most celebrated cases and is a none too complex piece of hero worship."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard