Monday, 27 April 2015

Theatre review: Ah, Wilderness!

The Young Vic website describes Ah, Wilderness! as "Eugene O'Neill's most delightful play," a field that with the best will in the world can't have that many runners in it. Elsewhere I've seen the blunter "Eugene O'Neill's only intentional comedy." It is a surprisingly sweet affair though, something of a love letter not just to a particular woman in the playwright's life, but to young love itself. It's the Fourth of July and an extended New England family gather at the home of local newspaper editor Nat Miller (Martin Marquez.) The obvious stand-in for a young O'Neill is the middle son, George MacKay's Richard, a likeably recognisable emo teenager in Natalie Abrahami's modern-dress production. Fond of reading the works of European playwrights and poets like Wilde and Shaw - much to the concern of his mother Essie (Janie Dee) - Richard has been sending overwrought love letters to a local girl. When her father catches on, he order her to break it off immediately.

Thinking it's Muriel (Georgia Bourke) herself who doesn't love him, Richard first mopes then joins his older brother Art (Ashley Zhangazha) on a trip to a seedy local bar, while back at home the family frets about his whereabouts.

Although there's darker themes that reflect O'Neill's better-known work (Ah, Wilderness! is sometimes called a prequel to Long Day's Journey Into Night,) this is mostly played with an unusually light touch. There is a look at alcoholism, but the drunken uncle Sid (Dominic Rowan) is mostly played for laughs, the only real darkness in his story coming from the melancholy of Nat's sister Lily (Susannah Wise,) who's always loved Sid but can never marry him while he still drinks.

This being the Young Vic, it was never likely to be a literal representation of 1900s Connecticut; Dick Bird's set is a massive sandpit at the front of what looks like a ruined wooden temple. It's a set that looks more suited to Greek tragedy than 20th century American comedy-drama, but in context it's a fitting location for a play that's filtered through rose-tinted memory. Abrahami adds to this effect by having O'Neill himself (David Annen, also doubling in a couple of smaller roles) appear silently at the sidelines, taking notes and writing this very play - I can see the appeal in theory but in practice it's a bit of an overly blunt nod at the fact that the play is autobiographical. It does allow for a niftily-done coup de théâtre setting up the play's climax though, as Annen tips over a small vase of water only for a whole section of the set to flood and form a lake in the sand.

I also didn't love the bizarre accent coming from Eleanor McLoughlin as the family's maid - was a real Irish actress in London that hard to find? Fortunately the play is much better served where it matters, with an appealing leading man: MacKay's Richard is variously sweet, sulky, pretentious and generally very funny. There's an excruciatingly awkward scene with Richard and a local prostitute (Yasmin Paige - wow, things really didn't work out well for Maria and Fit Dad when they moved to America) and a very different eventual encounter with Muriel by the newly-formed lake. Rather a gentle evening all in all, but well put-together.

Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 23rd of May at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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