Thursday, 8 February 2018

Theatre review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long night's journey into tomorrow morning, more like.

Seriously, though, Richard Eyre's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night originated at the Bristol Old Vic a couple of years ago, so the producers should have been well aware it comes in at three-and-a-half hours, and a 7pm start might have been kinder to audiences on a worknight. In any case, it arrives at Wyndham's with its original cast as the elder Tyrones - Lesley Manville, who's currently nominated for an Oscar, and Jeremy Irons, whose name is an anagram of "Jeremy's Iron." New to the cast are Rory Keenan and Matthew Beard as the sons in a family whose lives have been largely shaped by the mother's addiction. Cast against type, Irons plays James Tyrone, a famous actor with two adult sons he doesn't particularly fancy, who tours America with his one big hit play most of the year, but spends the quiet months with his family in their Connecticut summer house.

It's their only permanent base, but a place his wife Mary (Manville) constantly reminds him she's never really felt at home in. Her complaints are one of many attempts to distract her family from the secret she's hiding.


After giving birth to youngest son Edmund (Beard,) Mary was given morphine for the pain, and has been addicted ever since. After her latest stay at a rehab clinic her husband and sons are convinced she's finally managed to kick the habit, but this long day is the one when they realise she's relapsed again. It's also the day Edmund has a doctor's appointment to confirm what they all suspect but have pretended not to, that his Period Drama Cough is Consumption, the illness that killed Mary's father.


According to my review at the time, Anthony Page's 2012 production ran 30 minutes shorter than this one, and I can only guess that was down to a lot of text editing because Eyre's production doesn't feel like it's dragging its feet, it just has a lot of dialogue to get through from a family who love the sound of their own voices as much as they hate an awkward silence. This is felt more as the night drags on, but in the first two acts especially the heavy material flies by, largely down to Manville's outstanding performance - at one point I heard someone in the audience gasp at the way she turned on a sixpence from a veneer of calm to a mix of desperation and fury. It's such a powerhouse that by the interval it might have been a one-woman show, so much of the overall impact was hers. It does also mean that although there's technically nothing wrong with the show's male stars, the largely Mary-free second half struggles to live up to Manville's scenes.


There are still good moments though, with James' explanation to Edmund of why he's so infamously mean it's tangibly impacted on his family's health a particularly notable scene. Despite the characters' talk of having to go out and work in the heat of the garden, Rob Howell's design gives the house a coldness that matches the way Mary feels about it, and I liked the way the set design makes the background look like a Monet painting that fades into reality as it comes downstage - the broad brush strokes give a suggestion of the fog always threatening to descend on the house.


I was also struck in this particular production by the way Eugene O'Neill's dialogue keeps coming back to one technique, of a seemingly innocent, complimentary or throwaway sentence with one added final clause that turns around its meaning or twists the knife - it's largely used by Mary in her drug-fuelled ramblings to passive-aggressively attack her family, as well as for a gut-punch of a final line, but all the characters talk that way at times, perhaps as another sign of how Mary's addiction has affected them all. And I liked the way a crucial plot point, the fact that there was a middle son who died in infancy, isn't revealed until it's absolutely necessary: A lot of writers would have plonked a Basil Exposition scene in early on of the family unnecessarily mentioning a painful fact they already all knew about, but O'Neill trusts the audience to pick it up at a more natural point, when Mary is far gone enough to casually bring it up just to hurt her family. So for me this is a production that really makes you appreciate a lot of the intricacies of O'Neill's writing, and if not the most rawly emotional take overall one area where it can't be faulted is in Future Dame Lesley Manville's performance.

Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 7th of April at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning.

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