Jeremy Irons starred in Long Days Journey Into Night in 2016 in Bristol, the town in which he learnt his craft. Now, he leads the cast of Richard Eyre’s with Lesley Manville, recently announced as one of this year’s Oscar nominees for her role in Phantom Thread, in a fine revival of an American classic in the West End.
Eugene O’Neill’s text is full of subtleties that creep up on you. The very first line asks why the mother of the Tyrone family, Mary, insists on wearing long sleeves, covering her arms. We learn, behind her worrisome exterior that there are deeper issues at play. She’s not long out of a sanitarium after being treated for morphine addiction. But the family’s initial suspicions that she’s abusing the drug again are confirmed after a series of rabid outbursts. Manville’s monstrously emotive as Mary, she brings out all her character’s pain and suffering to bubble over the entire play.
The story is immensely layered though. It exposes the rest of the families issues: eldest son Jamie’s hedonistic nature; father James’ misery as a wasted talent, an actor who made his name playing one part for a lifetime; the family’s general dependency on alcohol. They mull over Mary’s addiction, constantly with a whiskey in hand from the morning. As if there wasn’t enough for this family to bemoan, youngest son Jamie is seriously ill, with possibly months to live.
There’s no doubt about it being a meaty play: it clocks in at around three and a half hours. But each of these characters unfolds so naturally - and that doesn’t necessarily mean slowly. Rarely do all four family members take to the stage at once, and each interaction will teach us something new about them.
Eugene O’Neill wrote this play loosely based on his own life, the characters being based on himself, his parents and his older brother. And you can feel the pain in each character, yet the understanding O’Neill has for each of their issues is abundant and poignant.
Jeremy Irons is typically stately as the father James. Though he never quite reaches the emotional highs we see from Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan (both stellar) as the two sons, the strain his life has been put on is clear. Jessica Regan makes a nice cameo as the housemaid Cathleen, and provides some light comic relief, more of which wouldn’t go a miss.
Rob Howell’s metallic, greenhouse set reminds us why this house never quite feels like a home to Mary. Despite its homely furniture and towering suitcase, it’s cold, empty, and lonely.
Long Days Journey Into Night Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"What never ceases to astonish – and this comes out clearly in Eyre’s production – is the dizzying emotional contradiction of O’Neill’s characters. Within a tight classical structure, they bounce around like pinballs between reality and illusion."
Michael Billington, The Guardian (four stars)
"In Richard Eyre’s production, this sprawling drama feels pacier than usual, though it still weighs in at three and a half hours. It remains a gruelling experience — Eyre calls it ‘the saddest play ever written’ — but has a naked emotional power that's genuinely absorbing."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)
"In Richard Eyre’s painfully intense production, these troubled figures are resurrected with both unsparing naturalism and just enough tenderness to make their flaws all the more painful."
Alice Saville, Time Out (four stars)
Photo by Hugo Glendinning