Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Wyndam’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Eugene O’Neill

Director: Jeremy Herrin

Set in Connecticut in the summer of 1912, written in 1941, and premiered in 1956, Eugene O’Neill’s bleak magnum opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains a chillingly recognisable depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics. Jeremy Herrin’s new production at the Wyndham’s may feel a little too austere for some; most obviously reflected in restrained, even sparse, direction and Lizzie Clachlan’s cramped and barely furnished boxy set. But strong performances, most notably from Patricia Clarkson as morphine-hooked mother-of-two Mary, make for a worthwhile evening.

Stripped back, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the tale, set on a single day, of four addicts battling with each other and their own demons. Events, which boil down to the three-stage addictive cycle of anticipation, binge, and regret are accompanied by the insistent intervention of a foghorn. James Tyrone (Brian Cox) is an ageing actor famed for a single role in a hack play. He is addicted to whiskey, money, and parsimony in equal measure. Cox plays Tyrone as a man in the grip of an eternal hangover. Quick to anger and equally quick to fall into maudlin self-pity, the man’s liquor-fuelled sentimentality gives way to cruelty at the flick of a bushy eyebrow. Inevitably there are comparisons to be made with Cox’s star turn as patriarch of the Roy family in TV epic Succession. In reality, cruel and self-deluding as Tyrone often is, the man is capable of love too. His is not the narcissistic psychopathy of Logan Roy.

Cox’s turn is immensely physical. Three hours of hunched shoulders, clenched fists, and bobbing head; this is more pugilist than actor. Coxaholics will devour it, particularly in the long exposition-heavy mea culpa that dominates the second half (one in which lesser performers can flail). Opinions will vary as to whether he really gets to the dark heart of James Tyrone and occasionally one wishes he would dial it all down a little. Technique almost, but not quite, triumphs over content here.

Tyrone’s wife Mary is addicted to the morphine a cut-priced, quack hotel doctor prescribed for her after childbearing. It is “the bank of fog in which she hides herself”. The insistent foghorn we hear (Tom Gibbons’ haunting soundscape is superb) is the mournful wail of her conscience calling her back to reality. Mary is also addicted to the mythology of her childhood and obsessed with the infant boy she lost to measles. Convinced that life would have proved more satisfying as a concert pianist or a nun, she mainlines disappointment alongside the narcotic that is slowly killing her. “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won’t let us” she says. It is a line that could come directly from Ibsen, a writer her actor husband loathes.

Clarkson’s terrific turn as Mary reveals the recognisable tics of a junkie oscillating between presence and absence. Her eyelids droop. Ideas and memories flick across her face and in an instant, they are gone. Sentences drop midway through. Eye contact is offered then withdrawn. It is a mesmerising performance.

The duo’s elder son Jimmie (Daryl McCormack, restrained and a perfect foil to Cox’s larger-than-life Tyrone), also a jobbing actor but much less successful than his father, is addicted to whiskey and cheap whores. Younger son Edmund (Laurie Kynaston impresses with reflective quietude), the O’Neill character in this most autobiographical of plays, is addicted to whiskey, poetry, and long walks by the seashore. “I love you more than I hate you,” a drunken Jamie tells Edmund. It is a sentiment that neatly captures the relationship between the two, but really any of the characters could say it truthfully to any other. This is a family that can only speak truth when drunk or high. The tragedy here is that love is all they have, and forgiveness is all they can offer. Overseeing the slow-motion car crash is maid Cathleen (Louisa Harland from Derry Girls in full-on ‘Oirish’ mode).

The action unfolds in the living room of the family’s summer house. It is the only home they really have; the rest of their lives being spent on the road in tacky hotels and railcars. Clachlan’s set is a receding series of claustrophobic boxes with walls of bare stripped pine. The sparse furniture is utilitarian wood, with just a cushion or two for comfort. One supposes it symbolises Tyrone’s meanness, but somehow it feels underworked and lacking in context. James knows Shakespeare like the back of his hand. Edmund spews Nietzsche and quotes Baudelaire. Yet there are no books in sight to even hint at such erudition. Tyrone’s hack play makes “$40,000 net profit a season” which suggests the “stinking old miser” could probably afford a plusher holiday home than this.

Runs until 8 June 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Chillingly recognisable classic.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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