Writer: Eugene O’Neill
Director: Richard Eyre
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There can be few plays which provoke the feeling of being a spectator at a car crash. Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork, which earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, invites us to watch as the Tyrone family analyse their own self-destruction. It is an invitation that is impossible to refuse.
The spectre of addiction does not hang over the family, so much as envelop it, as the fog around their Cape Cod cottage. But while Lesley Manville’s Mary is the most obvious addict, taken to retiring upstairs to dose herself up with morphine, and her elder son Jamie is dependent upon whisky and the town’s prostitutes, theirs are not the only lives ruined by addiction: the family’s patriarch, James (Jeremy Irons) is a once impressive actor, his career destroyed by an addiction to the easy income from a commercially successful play which typecast him to the point of unemployability.
Amid this maelstrom, Matthew Beard’s Edmund – the character O’Neill based on himself in this highly personal, semi-autobiographical piece – comes across as the least damaged soul, even as he struggles with a tuberculosis diagnosis that one senses is more serious than any of his family will acknowledge. As a tense day descends into a whiskey-fuelled night, his brother and father discuss endlessly, and often self-contradictorily, their feelings towards each other. Rory Keenan’s Jamie is the revelation here: an engagingly lugubrious drunkard who recognises his own penchant for self-destructiveness.
But of course, it is the parents whose casting grabs the headlines, and much of the attention. Irons’s James Tyrone de-emphasises his Irish Catholic heritage to portray him more as a refined, Shakespearean thespian-turned-miser. With an accent more England than New England, one is never short of reminders that we are watching Irons Act with a capital A. It’s a tremendous performance, but a distancing one.
It is Manville who is revelatory here. Her Mary is the focal point of Richard Eyre’s compellingly drawn production, and her protracted absence in the show’s fourth act is keenly felt. When onstage, she totally dominates, both on her own and with a romantic flightiness in her loving relationship with James that even manages to elicit a sweet-natured side from Irons. Manville has delivered several award-worthy performances in her career – notably in Eyre’s 2013 production of Ghosts – and it is not difficult to imagine this performance dominating the awards season shortlists. Her Mary flits between extremes of happiness and self-loathing, before rounding off the play with a monologue revealing the character’s religious past.
Throughout, Rob Howell’s set design, in which the Tyrones’ house appears to be a translucent shell smeared with oil paint that radiates different hues as evening falls, beautifully complements Peter Mumford’s lighting designs. As the Tyrone family descends into a long night of the soul, the staging transports us with them. At three and a half hours, this is one the West End’s longest plays, but it never fails to engage.
Runs until 7th April 2018 | Image: Hugo Glendinning