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A CurtainUp London Review
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
James Tyrone the elder was a philanderer and is a drunk, his sons are alcoholics, James Junior is a womaniser too and their mother is a drug addict. The blame ricochets around the walls of the Tyrone’s summer home like fire crackers as each member of the family regrets their lot in life in this intense play which takes place from 8.30 am to midnight on the same day.
James Tyrone is blamed for being a cheapskate in not paying for a decent doctor for his wife Mary (Laurie Metcalf) when she was in pain after giving birth to their third child Edmund, played as an adult by Kyle Soller. She was prescribed morphine and subsequently has suffered years of addiction. James blames his poverty struck upbringing which makes him aware of the value of money unlike his spendthrift son Jamie (Trevor White). Edmund has consumption and Mary’s genes are blamed for his indisposition. Both James Tyrones, father and son, are alcoholics and actors. James Tyrone the elder blames years in one successful role for stifling his achieving real theatrical acclaim. James Junior blames his father for forcing him to become an actor. This is as tragic and as well constructed as any Greek tragedy, a late play from Eugene O’Neill with much agonising detail from his own life history and family.
This play can have some longeurs but in Anthony Page’s single interval production coming in at less than three hours, the acting is truly gripping. Laurie Metcalf is extremely satisfying as passive-aggressive Mary in the traditional Edwardian white wig and long Edwardian frock, referred to in the text. She is delicate but complaining and ungrateful for what she has, looking back nostalgically to her courtship by the once handsome actor and comparing herself with others more fortunate. Now she is resentful and bitter. For instance, James has bought her a second hand car to help her travel around, mostly admittedly to the pharmacist to buy her drugs, but she talks only about the humiliation of being in such a poor car compared to the neighbours’ vehicle. Repeatedly she is called a “dope fiend” that quaint 1889 expression for a drug addict. Interestingly we do not warm to any of O’Neill’s characters such is the balance of his writing.
Although much of the play centres on the result of James’ meanness, his refusal to leave the hall lights on or the necessity for his sons to water the whisky bottle to get the level up to where it was when he last saw it, there are deeper psychological issues when they talk about the loss of the middle son at age 7. They believe that Eugene was killed by his brother James. Mary feels she was forced to have another child, the unfortunate Edmund, to replace Eugene with the terrible repercussions of that birth.
Anger as well as blame crackles between the family members as the men use drink to self medicate. The very reliable David Suchet is on top form, manipulative and vicious towards his elder son and of course re-using some of the famous speeches learnt in the course of Tyrone’s acting career. Suchet is dark and glowering and even when he puts his arm round his wife’s waist prematurely congratulating her on beating her addiction, it feels menacing and oppressive.
The performances are superb. Kyle Soller won the Milton Shulman award for Outstanding Newcomer in 2011 and here he brilliantly takes on Edmund’s terrible inheritance and tubercular cough, his curly hair reflecting his mood, tousled when he is upset, slicked back to visit the doctor. Trevor White as James, the image of his womanising and alcoholic father has a terrible aura of despair, locked in hatred of his father and he of him.
Mark Henderson gives us the lighting to show the change of time and Lez Brotherston’s set is imbued with what we now call shabby chic but then was plain shabby. In the morning we hear the seagulls mewing as the sun shines into the wooden panelled house. Anthony Page’s list of productions are important plays from the great classical repertoire, almost all of them memorable for all the right reasons.
This is a very fine production of a beautifully constructed play with an unexpected feel good factor as you come out grateful, that no matter the dysfunction in your own family, there is not the searing pain of the ill fated, unaccepting Tyrones.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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