Condé Nast Traveler

Hot Ticket – London

Center Stage
by Kevin Spacey

As the newest major player in English theater, Kevin Spacey raises the curtain on the drama that drives London.

CNTraveler904I first came to London as a child, when my family stayed at a small bed-and-breakfast called the Gower House in central London. One morning, I sat in the window of its breakfast room looking out across the street at a five-story Georgian building buzzing with activity. My mother told me that this was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the world’s great acting schools. I remember a staircase leading up to imposing wooden stoop. They seemed to stare back and beckon. I was captivated by the young actors and actresses mingling outside, smoking cigarettes and looking mysterious, and though I was only eight years old, I already knew I wanted to be one of them.

Thirty years later, in 1998, I was driving in my Jeep to the Old Vic to perform in The Iceman Cometh when something caught my attention. My foot hit the brakes, and there they were – those same lions. I was on Gower Street.

I hadn’t remembered where RADA was or even where my family had stayed during our trips to London, but as I looked across the street, I saw the window of that breakfast room and it all came flooding back. Of course, the lions aren’t quite as grand as I remembered, but then most actors aren’t quite as mysterious as they seem once you see them up close.

So my first recollections of London begin in the heart of the city, and writing about them got me thinking about distance and what it takes to get from here to there. My father’s first trip to London was as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was based here and fell in love with the city and with England, largely for what he viewed as its aristocratic way of life. My mother also loved things British and was a lifelong member of the Charles Dickens Society. Most of her vacations were spent in England to meet up with other Dickens devotees at  their annual conferences.

After we three children came along, my parents saved up their pennies to introduce us to this faraway world, and our family trips to Britain began when I was about six. Although my earliest memories of these vacations have dimmed, I do still have some vivid recollections. One is of a trip to Scotland that was my first time on a train. I was fascinated at seeing the countryside whizzing by at such speed, and have had a love of locomotives ever since. Another time, our parents took us to the Tower of London, which I remember finding more frightening than fascinating. But it was not nearly as scary as the rat that ran across my mother’s shoe while we were eating in an Indian restaurant in the West End one night. It was years before I was able to enjoy Indian food again.

My parents also had a love of the theater, and they began to take the three of us to plays at a very young age. I know that on one of our trips we saw a production at the Old Vic, but I cannot recall what it was. Decades later, when The Iceman  Cometh transferred from the Almeida Theatre in North London to the Old Vic, it was as if I had found a stage made for me.

The theater has always been my primary allegiance, and it was at the Old Vic that I had done my most challenging work. On a rainy night not long after my epiphany on Gower Street, I sat in a small park across from the theater and decided that this was the place I wanted to call my theatrical home. After all, somebody had to help save it from being converted into a disco or a lapdancing club-a distinct possibility a few years ago – so I signed on as artistic director. Perhaps one day I’ll come across an old program in the theater’s archives and the memory of the play I saw with my parents will return, just as it did with those lions.

The history of the Old Vic is one of the most glamorous in theater lore. Built in 1818, it was bombed in World War II, and its roof has never fully been repaired (rain still drips into buckets in the attic). But it was the home of the National Theatre for 13 seasons, ten of them under the artistic directorship of Laurence Olivier, and was where John Gielgud made his debut in the 1920s, Judi Dench in the 1960s, and where Ralph Richardson, Richard Burton, Maggie Smith, Peter O’Toole, and Olivier had their greatest triumphs.

It is also the theater I am fondest of performing in. Acoustically you won’t find better, and there’s something mysterious about the building itself. Actors have often remarked on feeling that theaters have their ghosts. But in the case of the Vic, they are not the haunting, scary kind a child might sense at the Tower of London; they are welcoming and embracing. Perhaps so many famous and respected artists have trod its boards that their talent and even their spirits radiate today. Given the success the theater has had this year with Trevor Nunn’s stunning production of Hamlet, it’s clear that the Old Vic is not bad for audiences, either.

I was born in New Jersey and raised in Los Angeles, and have lived many places in between, but I never pine for any city in particular – maybe because I naturally tend to focus on what’s unique wherever I find myself. Take Soho, for instance, a London neighborhood that changes character more frequently than a schizophrenic method actor in a one-man show. Although it’s in central London, its character is Wild West in that the good, the bad, and the ugly congregate there every day and that for a fistful of dollars you can buy pretty much anything you want. Here you’ll find more cultures than on a petri dish: The gay community drinks alongside hardened football fans, students dine alongside the cream of capitalism, Lefties talk to Tories, and rumor has it that even the French are welcome. If Soho were used as a model for the rest of the world, there would be no Guantanamo Bay, Michael Moore would have no more documentaries to make, Saddam Hussein would still be on Donald Rumsfeld’s Christmas card list, and Osama Bin Laden would just be a guy in Afghanistan with a bad kidney and a slight dislike for American foreign policy.  Soho has it all, from A to Z, but don’t try to buy E – this isn’t Amsterdam!

Now that I’m living in London, my journeys through the city are more frequent and I’m more often on the tube than behind the wheel of a car. London summers are not nearly as hot as those in New York, where the subway stations can feel as steamy as a sauna, and the tube is a convenient, refreshingly anonymous form of transportation where anyone can ride unnoticed. People are too busy reading the sports pages–or nursing the early-morning hangover that the English hide so badly – to make much eye contact. They say that the tube helps keep cars off the streets, but once you’re caught in a London rush hour, you’ll begin to doubt that  there are any tunnels below ground at all.

If you do find yourself stuck in a swarm of black taxis moving nowhere – and you’re up for it – my other favorite way around London is on an electric scooter. It’s like riding a surfboard with handlebars. Some come with a seat that you can remove; others are standing room only. They’re fuel-efficient, and there’s nothing quite like the freedom of zipping past honking cabs at 16 miles per hour, the wind in your face and a smile on your lips. Bike shops around the city rent them by the day, and navigating through traffic on a scooter is about as close to adventure travel as you’ll find in London.

However you decide to get around the city, there is no end to the expeditions it  offers. “When a man tires of London, he tires of life, for there is in London all that man can afford.” So wrote Samuel Johnson more than 200 years ago, and the same is true today. Another thing that hasn’t changed much since Johnson’s time is the traditional English breakfast – the tradition being to find a plate that contains more fat than a butcher’s dog. One of the best can be had at the Ritz Hotel, in Piccadilly, but for a more proletarian “fry up,” you can’t do better than a cafe, where builders and brokers join in a team effort to raise the bar on the world’s cholesterol level. Ask for “best” and you’ll receive bacon, egg, sausage, and tomato; ask for muesli and at best you’ll receive a quizzical look, and at worst a punch in the mouth.

The London cafe is something everyone should experience at least once, but don’t  come expecting glamour: Tea is served white with two sugars, and usually in a chipped mug reading WORLD’S BEST DAD or emblazoned with the name of an English soccer team. Pleasantries here have been discarded in favor of grunts, and the windows are usually covered in more steam than the back of a teenager’s car. My personal favorites for a great morning start are in the small cobbled streets and walkways of Mayfair’s Shepherd Market.

It takes the average person two to three weeks to digest an English breakfast, although you can significantly reduce this time by walking it off shopping. The obvious choices – Harrods, Fortnum& Mason, and Liberty – may come to mind, but beware: These stores can decimate a credit rating faster than a war in South America. For the more prudent shopper, there are the flea markets of Camden, where the odd lost Picasso can still be found among the bric- a-brac. Hiding your American accent here is a must, unless you want to walk away 200 pounds lighter and carrying the lost Van Gogh self-portrait. You’ll be back at home before you’ve discovered that he’s got two ears. My favorite buys at Camden Market  have been from the rare T-shirt collections.

Notting Hill, made famous around the world by the movie, swarms with tourists, but its Portobello Road market is worth a stroll for the stalls crammed with antiques. At the bottom of Portobello is Ladbroke Grove, a small neighborhood with all the funkier London shops, including Heidi Klein – where women in the know go for the world’s best bikinis.

For a man to go home looking like James Bond, two stops are a must: Savile Row and Jermyn Street. In Savile Row, every shop sells suits, and these are indeed where James Bond buys his. The tailors here tell you what to wear and cater to  royalty, businessmen, and the landed gentry. For an off-the-rack suit, take your credit card; for bespoke duds, take someone else’s. When you first don a suit from the likes of Gieves & Hawkes, you’ll feel like a member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The same is true on Jermyn Street, which sells only shirts and also caters to princes and kings. Don’t worry about the APR on your credit card when you buy a shirt here; by the time you’ve put it on, you’ll believe that you’re the one setting the interest rates. Top this off (or rather bottom this off) with a pair of Church’s shoes and your next assignment to save the world is in the mail.

British food has been so long and so vigorously maligned that it still comes as a surprise to many that London boasts more top French chefs than Paris does. At the high end is Gordon Ramsay at both Claridges and The Ivy, but there are more fine restaurants than you can count; some have Michelin stars on the door, others have Hollywood stars at the tables. Of course, if you want gastronomic excellence, you’ll have to pay astronomic prices. Gordon Ram say will serve you the finest fare in London for the highest fare in London, while Sketch will serve you a great steak in surroundings that appear to have been designed by Lenny Kravitz during an acid flashback.

Getting a seat at Fifteen is as likely as getting an invite to the pope’s wedding, but should you be lucky enough, this is a must. Fifteen was created by England’s most famous chef, Jamie Oliver, when he took 15 unemployed teenagers with no culinary experience and trained them for months. Some fell by the wayside, but those who remain have won the hearts, mouths, and stomachs of every discerning epicure in London. When in Covent Garden, try Joe Allen’s, a favorite of the theater crowd for years, with a combo that plays in the corner.

For live music and ambience, you can’t beat Ronnie Scott’s nightclub on Frith Street. All of the greats have played here over the years, and it still packs in music lovers of every stripe. Pete King is always at the door, ready to welcome you with open arms or to throw you out, depending on your demands. The dust on the lamp shades is decades old, but how many times in your life will you be in the same room where Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Charlie Mingus rocked the night away.

Alternatively, scrap all of the above (warning: shameless plug ahead) and go directly to the Old Vic to see the new Dutch play Cloaca, by Maria Goos. We are presenting it in September as our first  production, with a wonderful company of the finest British actors. Or, wait for the holidays and see Sir Ian McKellen as the Widow Twankey in Aladdin. If you can’t make it over until next year, you can still watch yours truly strut his funky stuff on the boards in National Anthems and The Philadelphia Story. 

The Old Vic is only four blocks from the banks of the Thames, so don’t listen to those who say it’s too remote. It is an accessible and elegant way to spend an evening – although we do matinees, too. Call me biased, but I believe it to be one of the hotter sights in this wonderful town.

Old Vic Theatre: 44-870-060-6628; www.oldvictheatre.com; tickets, $19-$75. 

Conde Nast Traveler September 2004