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It may have been written over 70 years ago, but Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical love-hate letter to his dysfunctional Irish-American family can still deliver electrifying jolts of cruelty and tenderness in the right hands. Depending largely on its cast, however, Long Day’s Journey Into Night can also be a verbose, overwrought, soapy endurance test. Despite earning ecstatic reviews, Richard Eyre’s new London revival of this Pulitzer-winning classic falls somewhere between those two poles.
Premiered at the Old Vic theater in Bristol in 2016, Eyre’s handsome production stars Lesley Manville, currently an Oscar contender for Phantom Thread, alongside Jeremy Irons, already an Oscar winner with solid marquee appeal. Newly transferred to the West End, this limited London run will cross the Atlantic to a three-week booking at BAM in Brooklyn in May, with a Los Angeles engagement to follow. British reviews already are tending towards the rapturous, and ticket demand will undoubtedly be healthy based on star power alone. But there are nagging weaknesses in this three-hours-plus psychodrama that detract from the sweaty, malignant, wrenching emotional intensity of O’Neill’s poetry-drenched prose.
Much of the blame lies with the casting of Irons as cigar-huffing blowhard James Tyrone, a former matinee idol locked in low-level psychic warfare with his wife and grown-up sons over the course of a single August day in 1912. Tyrone is no one-dimensional tyrant but a flawed, disappointed patriarch whose moral blind spots and miserly habits have caused long-term damage to his family’s mental and physical health.
With his lofty frame and patrician manner, the emphatically English Irons is a poor match for a character that O’Neill conceived as a boozy, brawny, shabbily dressed showman of hard-knuckled Irish peasant stock. The most risible aspect of his mannered, fidgety performance is his terrible approximation of an American accent, which is unconvincing on a level that might make even Sean Connery blush. In a drama that revolves around submerged family secrets, this hammy turn may well be the biggest elephant in the room. Reviewers have mostly been charitable toward Irons so far, but for me he made suspension of disbelief very difficult in a play that already pushes plausibility to the brink of overcooked melodrama.
Thankfully, Manville is far more compelling as Tyrone’s long-suffering wife Mary, whose on-off morphine habit is her last line of defense against gnawing loneliness and depression. Her incessant babbling and twitchy body language convey the nervous energy of an addict struggling to project a mask of normality. There are shades of Blanche DuBois in this performance, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, forever sinking back into the warm fog of opiated dislocation when the kindness of strangers runs dry. Taking on one of the great American female stage roles previously inhabited by titans such as Colleen Dewhurst, Zoe Caldwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurie Metcalf and a Tony-winning Jessica Lange in 2016, Manville rises to the challenge. In the process, frankly, she blows Irons off the stage.
A new arrival to the London transfer, Rory Keenan brings a boisterous, mood-lifting charisma as the couple’s older son James Jr., a cynical Broadway hack actor drinking and whoring his way to an early death. But fellow newcomer Matthew Beard is a more watery presence in his more thankless role as sensitive younger brother Edmund, O’Neill’s stage surrogate, an aspiring poet struggling with a potentially lethal case of consumption.
O’Neill’s florid dialogue, full of repetitions and echoes, confessions and contradictions, is perhaps best interpreted in our more impatient age as musical in function, its recurring motifs looping around like bad memories that the Tyrones can never quite suppress. It is also steeped in literary quotation, from Shakespeare and Baudelaire to the ornate Biblical language of its author’s devout Catholic upbringing. The effect is overripe and longwinded in places, but still thrilling when it achieves a high lyrical pitch. The handful of scenes that stray into bickering family farce also provide welcome comic relief in a marathon misery-fest whose relentlessly neurotic tone risks choking on self-absorbed narcissism at times.
Worthy of mention here is Rob Howell’s set, which transforms the Tyrone family’s fog-wreathed Connecticut summer house into a dynamic Vorticist fantasy of plunging forced perspective. And John Leonard’s sound design, peppered with symbolically mournful foghorns and wistful seagulls, is literal-minded but evocative. Overall, Eyre and his team have cooked up a rich feast of a production which is only partially ruined by having a thick slice of boiled ham at its center.
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Cast: Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, Rory Keenan, Matthew Beard, Jessica Regan
Director: Richard Eyre
Playwright: Eugene O’Neill
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Sound designer: John Leonard
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by Fiery Angel, Bristol Old Vic, Fiery Dragons, Gavin Kalin, Neil Laidlaw
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