Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
Broken dreams and profound despair fill every minute of Eugene O’Neill’s epic melodrama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Richard Eyre’s terrific West End transfer hangs on to every second of it.
Our empathy for the tortured Tyrone family could wear a little thin after three hours and 40 minutes of accusations and recriminations if it wasn’t for the superb performances of its cast, which is led by Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.
This Bristol Old Vic production has really improved since its first outing last year for the theatre’s 250th anniversary celebrations, although it is still in dire need of editing.
Now running for a ten-week season at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, Irons and, in particular, Lesley Manville, as James and Mary, are tremendous – even if Irons’, multi-award winning actor that he is, fails miserably to master a decent American accent.
O’Neill’s heart and soul are in this play, so much so that he didn’t want it published until 25 years after his death. The biographical elements must have been almost too painful to transcribe.
It’s a huge play and, at the same time, an intensely intimate portrait of a family struggling to overcome the past and face the present.
Over the course of a day and night we see the Tyrones, plus their dissolute and wretched sons, Jamie and Edmund, eviscerated as they try to make sense of their life together.
Manville is spellbinding as Mary Tyrone who finds solace in morphine to combat the guilt and loneliness she feels.
She has some immense speeches, faultlessly delivered, as Mary descends into a hell of her own making – and not for the first time.
It’s clear that she has battled with demons throughout their marriage, but particularly since losing her second son, Eugene, to measles when he was a baby.
Now she is wallowing in self-pity, overwhelmed with depression and terrified to admit, even to herself, that she has a drugs problem.
She blames herself for everything, from falling in love with the wrong sort of man, to raising two needy children and losing a third.
And she blames Jamie for giving the baby measles and Edmund for taking his place.
She yearns for a home and a settled life and the three men – but mostly her long-suffering husband – are bombarded with her gabbling, repetitive, disturbing rants.
Manville’s Mary flits, bi-polar-like, from gay and upbeat to anxious, distraught and desperate. It is a beautifully nuanced performance that never skips a beat.
It must be hard living in a house full of men whose routine involves them spending most of their spare time drinking and carousing while she is left at home.
Set during the summer of 1912, the family has returned to their summer place in Connecticut. Patriarch, and skinflint, James is an actor who spends most of the year on the road, dragging his wife from one cheap hotel to another.
He had high hopes that his eldest son, Jamie, would follow him into the profession but he lacks commitment and prefers whiskey and women.
Youngest son, Edmund, is trying to make it as a reporter, working on the local rag, but he is sick with consumption and faces an uncertain future.
As day turns into night, and the whiskey, diluted or otherwise, flows readily, all four Tyrones are stripped bare and held to account.
Irons gives an assured performance as James Tyrone, hugging and loving his sons one minute and then berating them for their failings the next.
Like any father he tries to shield them from the reality of what is happening with their mother but the pair are aware and feel helpless.
There’s one, (overlong) revelatory scene, which takes place at twilight, when he opens his heart to the sickly Edmund, revealing his crushing disappointment at making bad choices in his career, the reason for his meanness, and his fears for the future.
His own emotions flit from being morose and resigned to suffer Mary’s volatile behaviour, to despondency, with occasional quips and barbs thrown to defend himself from familial brickbats.
Rory Keenan, always excellent, gives a strong turn as the drunken Jamie but he disappears for long stretches of the play. It’s a pity that the part is so under-written because he’s enormously watchable.
Matthew Beard, too, is excellent as the cynical consumptive Edmund.
There is little levity in an O’Neill play and Long Day’s Journey Into Night is no exception. A few lines lift the gloom, particularly from the maid Cathleen (Jessica Regan) but she makes only a couple of fleeting appearances.
Nevertheless, this is a powerful and moving production, but would have been even more compelling with about an hour taken out of it.