Add review

Clarence Darrow

Critics' choice
© Manuel Harlan

Kevin Spacey (Clarence Darrow)

© Manuel Harlan

Kevin Spacey (Clarence Darrow)

© Manuel Harlan

Kevin Spacey (Clarence Darrow)

Old Vic, Southbank Tuesday March 3 2015 - Saturday April 11 2015

'Clarence Darrow' returns to the Old Vic from March 3 2015 for six weeks. This review is of the show's 2014 run.

Gracing the stage of his own theatre again after a yawning three-year absence, Kevin Spacey could scarcely have made a more crowdpleasing comeback if he’d bought everyone in the audience a ‘House of Cards’ box set and a BMW.

It would be an exaggeration to describe David W Rintels’s 1974 monologue, culled from the wit and wisdom of the eponymous US civil liberties lawyer, as a hagiography. After all, Clarence Darrow did say most of this stuff, and the play is less about him and more about what he stood for: decency, tolerance, respect for others – all that good stuff.

Immortalised in the play and film ‘Inherit the Wind’ (a role Spacey played here in 2009), Darrow was one of the greatest orators in American history, a man of deep principle, a tremendously successful champion of the underdog, and a pretty funny guy to boot.

‘Clarence Darrow’, then, is the equivalent of the rousing, tide-turning speech at the end of a great courtroom drama the entire way through, as Darrow, alone in his untidy office, gives us the edited highlights of his career from late nineteenth-century labour lawyer to twentieth-century civil liberties titan. It ends with his electrifying attack on the death penalty at the summation of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb trial, which is probably one of the best things an actual human being has ever said in actual real life.

Most actors could get a round of applause with this stuff, given a modicum of conviction and a friendly crowd. But this is Kevin bloody Spacey we’re talking about, and in Thea Sharrock’s production he tackles it with such seismic energy that he might as well be a different species to the rest of us.

The first five minutes pass in silence; there’s a bit of folksy physical business as Darrow potters about his office, half-heartedly trying to rationalise his teetering piles of files, giving the audience a wry look over. Then the avalanche starts, as Spacey finally opens his mouth, launching into Darrow’s first speech at full tilt and never letting up. There are points when you wonder where the hell he could possibly go next, such is the force of delivery and raspy, throaty passion in his voice. Yet it doesn’t become numbingly bombastic; it’s incredibly effective. Under the mannered roaring there is tenderness in his voice, fear too, fear for humanity because these cases came to trial, fear for his clients if they don’t get off. Spacey makes sure the stakes always seem high.

Spacey has said that this won’t be his final role before stepping down as Old Vic boss next year, and I’m glad of that because for all the brilliance of the performance, ‘Clarence Darrow’ is an uncomplicated play and an easy win. Nevertheless, this is a pure and powerful barnstormer of an evening, one that leaves you in awe of both the men on stage.

Venue name: Old Vic
Address: 103 The Cut
Waterloo Rd
Opening hours: Bar open 6pm-midnight Mon and Tue; 1pm-midnight Wed; 6pm-2am Thu and Fri; 1pm-2am Sat
Transport: Tube: Waterloo; Rail: Waterloo
  • Show more

Average User Rating

5 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:0
  • 3 star:0
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:0
1 person listening
Zohra J

What can I add to what's already been said about the party, not much. He's incredible, the script is amazing. There isn't much else nor is anything else required. Theatre night like no other. We waited 5 hours for standing seats and it was totally worth it.


The whole audience standing to applaud for some minutes. Kevin Spacey coming back again, and the applause is even louder. They were a couple of gripping hours. The play was rich, meaningful, the words targeting significant issues, and Spacey's voice, rising up to Lilian Baileys circle, left no one untouched. It's a powerful combination of a great play and a great actor. Few plays will top this one I believe. And I am so happy I was there, captured by this magnificent performance, not wanting it to finish.

Daniel C

From the moment it begins with Kevin Spacey under a desk until the moment it ends with him pleading to the audience, this is a mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining play which is a truly fitting way for Mr Spacey to end his tenure as the Old Vic’s artistic director. The theatre has been rearranged for this performance “in-the-round” and Spacey makes full use of the audience on every side (including a hilarious venture into the front row for one lucky lady!). He clearly admires Clarence Darrow (who he has played before) and relishes the chance to play such a fascinating and influential real-life character. Whilst the subject matter is fairly heavy at times (Clarence Darrow fought vehemently against the death penalty, for example), Spacey intersperses these scenes with perfectly timed humour. The production is minimalistic but the sound and lighting work fantastically together to create stark contrasts in mood when required. The mere fact that one actor can have the entire audience hooked on his every word for nearly 2 hours is testament to a play of the very highest quality.