Eugene O’Neill sweated so hard over this autobiographical play, written 1941, that he demanded it not be performed until 25 years after his death.
Now it’s been revived on the West End stage, and we can’t help wondering if this epic, cathartic play was written with a public audience in mind at all. With very little action, four members of a hugely dysfunctional family fight over the course of a very long day. The warning’s in the title. Anthony Page‘s production has reduced the running time to just under three hours, but still, so little happens besides a slow, steady decline into a curtain call, there’s little to recommend it from an audience’s point of view.
The London cast are excellent, despite the lack of meat in the plot. David “Poirot” Suchet imbues the head of the family, James Tyrone with all the charisma, arrogance, and repressed guilt of a failed husband, father and actor; his long, drunken speech about his poverty-stricken upbringing is completely believable. It needs to be: it’s this story that fuels the other characters’ separate downfalls. His miserliness has led to his wife’s morphine addiction, and in turn to one son’s alcoholism and the other’s developing consumption. We told you it was a barrel of laughs.
The problem for us is this: addiction’s kinda boring. On stage, the steady cycle of cure, guilt, anxiety, secrecy, pressure, lapse, and guilt again is rarely interesting for long. Laurie Metcalf plays Mary Tyrone with a wonderful range; chirpy one moment, anxious then self-deluding the next; vicious and snappy, then loving and apologetic, even within the same sentence.
But beside these excellent, masterclass-like performances, we ran out of patience with the drunken tirades that make up the latter half of the play. Instead, we revelled some of the fun insults O’Neill had thought up for his family: “Irish bogtrotter”, “stinking old miser”, “drunken loafer”, “dope-fiend”, “drunk as a fiddler’s bitch”. We hope he felt better after writing it; we can’t say we did after seeing it.
A Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays at the Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 18 August. Tickets start at £21. Visit www.nimaxtheatres.com/long_days_journey_into_night for more info, and a load of rave reviews, which we just can’t bring ourselves to join in with. We saw the play at the invitation of Jo Allan PR.