In the programme notes The Old Vic Theatre Company’s new artistic director Kevin Spacey announces, “We intend to put on great shows that you will want to see.” But, with his first production “Cloaca”, I wondered why Spacey thought this was a great play? It is as dreary as a cold wet grey day.
‘Cloaca’, a comedy written by Dutch playwright Maria Goos is about male mid-life crises. An apparent crisis that hits men who have attended university, worked at a professional career and then panic when they hit their forties because their life suddenly seems empty. This is the experience of four friends who meet up in Pieter’s Amsterdam loft apartment.
Placid single gay Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson) has worked for twenty unfulfilled years in local government, a job he endured because of the perk of being able to select a painting each year for his birthday from the council’s unwanted art depository. Now that the artist paintings have become valuable the council wants them back.
Jan (Hugh Bonneville) is a ‘family man’ who has sought a career in politics, but just as his dream of being a cabinet minister is on the verge of being fulfilled his marriage reaches rock bottom. Tom (Adrian Lukis), a coke-snorting, manic-depressive solicitor who has recently been released from a mental institution after suffering a drug-induced psychosis, decides to re-launch his career by defending Pieter, and Maarten (Neil Pearson) is an avant-garde theatre-director who is swiftly running out of ideas.
The main difficulty with the play is in believing that these four men have been friends for over two decades. We learn little about their past, and they relate to each other with very few genuine signs of camaraderie. For example, Pieter is living in an apartment that is way beyond his salary as a local government officer, yet none of his friends question this. And only Jan knew that Tom’s absence was due to him being in a mental institution, yet he never informed his other two friends of Tom’s whereabouts. Since their friendship is so obviously inauthentic
Maria Goos’ has nothing new to tell us about men, and the ones in this play are stereotypical. We have Jan whose ambition means he is willing to ride roughshod with family and friends; Maarten whose inability to relate to women as anything other then sexual objects manifests itself as misogyny; Tom, whose search for excitement has caused him to become a drug-user who grows increasingly unstable and Pieter, the placid loner who prefers to observe rather than participate in life. These four characters remain predictable throughout the play.
Stephen Tompkinson captures Pieter’s docile and remote nature, his increasing anxiety smoulders quietly within him. Adrian Lukas ‘Tom’ looks increasingly fragile and hyper as he sees his friends heading towards disaster and Hugh Bonneville’s ‘Jan’ grows colder and ever more egotistical as his ambitions are thwarted. Neil Pearson struggles with the character of ‘Maarten’ - whilst he is believable as the misogynist theatre director who struggles with impotence, he lacks credibility as the loyal friend who tries to do right by Pieter. However, this is hardly surprising, as the script never provides us with reasons for assuming this friendship is genuine.
Cloaca means a waste pipe that carries away sewage, sadly the pipe is broken and sewage is spilling onto the stage of The Old Vic. It is not a pleasant experience!
What other critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A curiously underwhelming affair." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although Spacey himself directs capably enough, the play never really pins down the disillusion of middle-age nor the joshing camaraderie under which men hide their real feelings." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Cloaca seems strained, muddled and often jaw-droppingly improbable....I've had more fun lying in gutters than sitting through this comedy." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Superlatively-acted though unexciting tragi-comedy." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Its worst fault is that, though nominally a comedy of darkish shade, it’s a bit earnest, a mite didactic and less funny than a classy cast had led one to hope." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Thin, stale play."