Long Day’s Journey into the Heart of American Theatre

Joanna Alpern reviews ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night’, at the Apollo Theatre, London, 6 April 2012

Rating: 5/5

 

Set in 1912 on the Connecticut coast, Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night was indeed long, running for three full hours. But this autobiographical play about a family that love each other despite the addictions that tear them apart and the past that threatens to consume them, is outstanding. The Tyrones cannot keep their eyes off one another, nor their accusations, or professions of love. It’s a celebration of expression: the sweet, the disturbing, and the necessary. And I couldn’t help contrasting it with its restrained British counterparts in the West End.

The play’s polar opposite is perhaps Harold Pinter’s The Betrayal. The Kirsten Scott-Thomas production made me realise how quaint and cool we Brits are. We don’t want to cause a fuss, we don’t – ironically – want to make a scene. It’s all a very read-between-the-lines kind of agony. Mike Leigh’s Grief at the National Theatre was oppressive (I guess the title was a bit of a give-away), and what made it so was the utter inhibition of the characters, the way they never said what they were thinking, never could vent their grief, but just let it go on and on until the horrific finale.

So, in comparison to these quintessentially British plays, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night lacks subtlety, along with some other great American classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, coincidentally both very much inspired by this piece. But they make up for it in poetry. Despite the painful content of the play, I left feeling exhilarated.

Eugene O’Neill was a master of catharsis. His characters, from start to finish, express themselves loudly and wonderfully, albeit with the help of morphine and alcohol, but wonderfully nonetheless. There is still development, of course. But instead of the British thumbprint of cold all the way through with a spark of warmth at the end, A Long Day’s Journey fluctuated everywhere between warm and scalding hot – and the cast didn’t even break a sweat.

Having only seen David Suchet in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, it was refreshing to see him as the father of this dysfunctional family, in the centre of the heated action, as opposed to smugly above it. He was snappily growly, with the authentic enunciation of a talented actor turned property-owner, and thoroughly likeable. Newcomer Kylle Soller had the poetically tormented Edmund, based on Eugene himself, down to a tee with his sombre facial expressions and his little boy’s laughter. And Trevor White also showed skill at switching so completely from the well-composed older brother to the totally out-of-control drunken mess of misplaced masculine bravado and fraternal sadism.

But it was Laurie Metcalf who made the journey a stunning one as the mother addicted to morphine. Her insanity never distanced the audience but drew us in, and despite seeing her high out of her mind around her kids, her character attracted the most sympathy. She very much made the lines her own with original little nuances, sticking her tongue out comically whenever an unpleasant topic of conversation was brought up, being overbearingly touchy-feely with her sons and babbling schizophrenically to avoid facing the facts.

It was heart-warming to see such a sizzling American piece dealt with by a cast more than capable.

 

Joanna Alpern

Image credit – ell brown

 

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