Anna Christie, than the domestic tragedy on offer in Long Day's Journey Into Night - even if both the muscles and the beard are slightly less extravagant than Jude Law's. An odyssey of the working man in the early days of trade unionism, The Hairy Ape follows Yank (Bill Ward,) a strong, not-too-bright man who works in the guts of a luxury transatlantic liner, shoveling coal into the furnaces. It's 1922, and the daughter of the ship's owner has patronising ideas of doing something for the less well-off. But when Mildred (Emma King) visits the boiler room, Yank scares her off. Told that she thought he was a "hairy ape" (and be warned, this is one of that weird sub-genre of plays that like to remind you of the title in the dialogue a lot) Yank cracks and ends up searching the streets of New York looking for some dignity, and a place to belong.
Jean Chan's set is a lovely cross-shaped traverse which sets us up for a production that will be most notable for some powerful, memorable visuals. Director Kate Budgen creates a series of tableaux and choreographed scenes that expand on the imagery of hell that peppers O'Neill's script, and lighting designer Richard Howell makes a huge contribution to the best elements of the production. A hard-working, quick-changing ensemble help populate Yank's world in sometimes quirky ways. If the vocals matched the visuals this would be a must-see show but unfortunately Ward is hard to understand far too much of the time. He's probably not helped by the fact that O'Neill tends to write characters in pretty dense dialect but even so, particularly when he's got his back turned Ward's speech tends to be shouty white noise.
In the opening scene, which I think involved a lot of discussion of worker's rights that remains a theme for the rest of the play, the whole cast is largely incomprehensible. Followed by a misjudged, overacted scene between King and Lizzie Roper as her snobbish aunt, the first quarter of an hour or so bodes badly for the show. Fortunately, from the third scene of Yank and Mildred's brief, fateful meeting, Budgen's strong sense of visual storytelling kicks in and helps overcome a lot of the show's problems. And considering so much of the show's power is visual, it's interesting that one of the most memorable scenes of the play is one played out in total darkness, a particular sound making its way across the stage in a scene to put the hairs up on the back of your neck.
With my original theatre companion unable to make it, I co-opted Vanessa at the last minute. It's really not her sort of thing (although with a title like The Hairy Ape she was looking forward to possibly seeing some long-lost relatives) but she did find areas of interest, and found the scene in darkness quite scary. The dodgy opening scenes and continuing enunciation problems from the lead means The Hairy Ape doesn't quite scale the height of the Empire State Building, but at times it comes frustratingly close.
The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 9th of June at Southwark Playhouse.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.