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A CurtainUp London London Review
Clarence Darrow

"Darrow doesn't bribe juries, he just frightens them to death. — a friend
Clarence Darrow
Kevon Spacey as Clarence Darrow (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
At the end of this season, Kevin Spacey will say goodbye to the Old Vic where he has been Artistic Director for the last seventeen years. He had visited London theatres as a child and, when playing in The Iceman Cometh, his affection for this beautiful Waterloo theatre was cemented. He accepted the offer to head up the Old Vic creatively. With no public subsidy, Spacey attracted sponsorship to reconfigure the theatre to play in the round for some productions and also donated his personal time and money to the historic theatre.

Spacey has starred here in both of Shakespeare's Richard plays, Richard II and Richard III and although I found his Richard III mesmerising, and The Iceman Cometh compelling, I think my favourite would be Inherit the Wind, the story of the Scopes Monkey trial. In that trial the lawyer for the defence was in real life a fascinating attorney called Clarence Darrow.

The story of Clarence Darrow, a civil right activist and lawyer who fought against the death penalty was adapted by David W Rintels from Irving Stone's book and Spacey played him in a film in 1991 when he had to age across three decades. Here Darrow is looking back on his life as a campaigning lawyer. The play opens in his scruffy office with Darrow moving around large boxes of files and photographs. He disappears under the desk, his feet on a chair and we realize he is freeing a drawer that has been crammed with papers.

We hear about his childhood and his free thinking parents. He was born in Ohio in 1857 and his father was an abolitionist and free thinker and his mother an early advocate of votes for women. As he talks about playing baseball, we hear the sound of the baseball crowd. It's like attending a great lecture where the audience hang on his every word. There's many asides to the audience and he travels around the auditorium exchanging asides much to their delight.

At first he was a lawyer for the city of Chicago but left to become attorney for a railroad company, until the Pullman strike of 1894 led to him resigning in order to defend a trade union activist Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union. I shall never forget Darrow's description of the supposed philanthropy of the Pullman Company. Makers of luxury railway carriages, the homes for their workers were rows of houses with one fawcett, no windows and four or five families in each tenement. As the company took the rent out of their wages there was little over for food. In 1894, the troops were brought in to control the strike and seven strikers were killed.

Darrow went on to campaign against child labour and won. Also in 1894 Darrow took on the case of Patrick Eugene Prendergast a mentally deranged homeless man who had murdered the mayor of Chicago. Darrow's insanity defence of Prendergast failed but this was the only case he lost to the hangman in more than 50 murder defences. We get a recap of the 1911 case against the unionist MacNamara brothers when during a labour dispute, a bomb went off prematurely in the Los Angeles Times building and 20 were killed. They was a scandal when one of Darrow's associates was caught bribing a juror and Darrow was implicated.

Unpopular murderers like privileged teenagers Leopold and Loeb who had kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy "for excitement" were defended by Darrow and saved from the death penalty. His aim as described by another was "to stop another murder by the state".

Spacey amuses as he recalls the defence in the Scopes Monkey trial of the veracity of the Bible. Finally we hear about Ossian Sweet a black man whose family were being forced out of a white neighbourhood, a landmark trial in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

I can see Clarence Darrow's appeal for Kevin Spacey. He was another man of principle and dedication to an ideal. Spacey delivers the Darrow witticisms and details of his first marriage with candour and charm. This show is sold out but there are queues for returns.

Matthew Warchus will take over the artistic directorship of the Old Vic and we hope he may tempt Kevin Spacey to once more tread those hallowed boards.

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Clarence Darrow
Written by David W Rintels
From the book by Irving Stone
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: Kevin Spacey
Designer: Alan Macdonald
Lighting: Guy Hoare
Music: Adrian Johnston
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: One hour 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Showing to 11th April 2015 but sold out
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th March 2015 performance at the Olc Vic Waterloo Road London SE1 (Rail,Tube: Waterloo)
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