'Long Day's Journey Into Night' review — Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson have powerful chemistry

Read our review of Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus starring Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson, now in performances at Wyndham's Theatre until 8 June.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

After hearing a brief description of Brian Cox’s latest project, you’d be forgiven for thinking he had taken his star turn as Succession’s fearsome patriarch Logan Roy to the stage.

In Jeremy Herrin’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he plays head-of-the-household James Tyrone, a fading actor, alcoholic, and miser, who is prone to Logan-esque retorts such as “you evil-minded loafer.” It is a titanic play, which O’Neill wished to remain unpublished until 25 years after his death, likely because of the plot’s personal links to his own life. Yet O’Neill’s wife Carlotta agreed to its early publication in 1956, just three years after her husband’s death.

Over the course of a single day at the Tyrones’ Connecticut home, James, his wife Mary (Patricia Clarkson), and their two sons Edmund (Laurie Kynaston) and Jamie (Daryl McCormack) reveal their struggles, addictions, and regrets, many of which are from deep in their pasts. They all voice unspeakable things, from Mary declaring Jamie partly responsible for the death of her third son Eugene, to Edmund telling his father he is too cheap to pay for proper care after Edmund is diagnosed with consumption.

In real life, Cox has spoken candidly in interviews about sharing some of James’s financial worries based on childhood experiences; in the play, he is completely absorbing when he delves into James’s past and describes his fear of going to the poorhouse as a boy. Cox shows how financial insecurities nag at James, as he unscrews lightbulbs from their casings to stop the wasteful use of electricity. He is gruff and bad-tempered, but there are layers to Cox’s performance, with James also gently doting on wife Mary. After 35 years of marriage, their chemistry feels genuine.

While Cox’s performance is undeniably strong, he is often outshone by Patricia Clarkson’s Mary, who veers between drug-induced serenity and a frantic energy, her sentences running into each other as reflections on the past and present thoughts collide. One moment, she is doting and anxious about Edmund’s health, and the next, she is abrasive and cruel in her observations. Clarkson perfectly captures a desperate picture of addiction, her mind clouded like the fog that surrounds their seaside home, which is signalled by sound designer Tom Gibbons’s unsettling foghorn that rings out even during the interval.

Clarkson’s Mary is quietly funny too, with wonderfully dry criticisms (“he’s a peculiar man,” she says of James). Louisa Harland also helps to cut through the play’s unforgivingly bleak atmosphere as jovial maid Cathleen who, in one particularly entertaining scene with a sedated Mary, cheekily makes her way through a bottle of James’s prized whisky. The role is a small part but she makes the most of it.

Herrin creates a suffocating atmosphere on stage, and you feel every minute of the play’s nearly three hour and 30 minute runtime. But that’s the point. The minutes drip by sluggishly, as characters rake over the past and struggle to come to terms with their present.

Admittedly, there are times when the plot slackens so much it is hard to remain focused, which is partly due to the play’s static staging. Characters move very little, engaged in fierce debate across a dining room table or quietly rocking in a chair. Dialogue is king and there is little to distract from it in Lizzie Clachan’s sparse set, save for a few chairs, a table, and an unused piano upstage, which quietly reminds us of Mary’s unfulfilled dreams of becoming a concert pianist. The walls are quite literally closing in, with black wooden beams further boxing in the stage space.

O’Neill’s play may be unrelenting in its tragedy, but in the hands of such a talented cast — with Herrin’s finely tuned direction — it is powerful theatre.

Book Long Day’s Journey Into Night tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day's Journey Into Night. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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