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Long Day's Journey Into Night, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Apollo Theatre

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Apollo Theatre

Unbeatable production of O'Neill's shattering play, with a transcendent Laurie Metcalf at its heart

Dealing with addiction: David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf as the query-happily married TyronesImages © Johan Persson

We’ve seen a few American film and TV actresses grace the West End stage with surprising potency, but no one surely will surpass Laurie Metcalf for profound emotional truth-telling in Eugene O’Neill’s shattering family drama, given an unbeatably cast new production in London’s West End.

Metcalf's by no means famous over here now, so long after her brilliant stint in Roseanne Barr's Nineties sitcom, but this is one of those performances you won't forget, up there in the Vanessa Redgrave class.

The play, set exactly a century ago, famously portrays O’Neill’s own family, so much so that he would not allow its performance in his lifetime. He put his young self into one of the two sons, the young writer Edmund facing not only his mother's mental disintegration but his own life-threatening illness, yet it's through O'Neill's art that the lacerating pain of each of the quartet in this grippingly afflicted family goes way beyond autobiography to a universal place for each and any of us.

The mother, of course, is central. Metcalf casts a piercing improvisatory light on every complex aspect of Mary Tyrone, a frail, white-haired beauty in an old-fashioned Edwardian dress, whose instability rules the menfolk in her family. Loving, lost, addicted to morphine, she wanders to and fro across the fine line between submissiveness and manipulation, both magnetically pitiable and yet absolutely shackling the lives of her husband and two sons due to their fear of her unpredictability.

long day's journey into night dad two sonsHer husband James is an actor who made his living with a vehicle production that he cannily bought for himself and milked, driven by awful memories of his gutter childhood as an Irish immigrant. His elder son Jamie is a half-hearted actor himself, now 34, living a cheap, louche life, coming home each summer with ever more sharply honed cynicism and a destructive capacity for whisky. Younger son Edmund labours on a newspaper, while writing poetry off-duty, and his hacking cough has been ignored too long. All three of them are electrically wary of Mary, who emerges in Metcalf's dazzling reading as a most pathetic woman whose imaginative life has been crushed by her timidity and by some rough-and-ready doctoring. She is still adored by her husband 35 years after their marriage despite the cruel fact that she appears unable to speak anything but the truth nowadays, uncontained by any genuine sensitivity towards others, puncturing all the helpful hypocrisies that got their family through for so long.

The day of the title is a day that's been waiting to happen (pictured, Trevor White as Jamie, David Suchet as James and Kyle Soller as Edmund). In this family, weather fronts have been gathering and poising to collide. The day begins at breakfast, in sunny optimism; it passes through lunchtime, as we hear that Edmund is to receive his diagnosis later that day, and the fearful darkening evening when it emerges that Mary has gone back to morphine; it ends at midnight, everyone now blotto on whiskey or narcotics, when the news that Edmund has TB (a life sentence in 1912) does not cap the somehow worse revelation in the final lines which turns entire lives into ashes.

What exactly does love mean? Does it mean habits of pretence? Questions of blame trickle away like sand through fingers

A long day's night it is, yet these are such rich characters, and the story so intense, that you're riven to it as in a classical Greek tragedy, each person locked in their own trajectory. What exactly does love mean? Does it mean habits of pretence? Is an addict responsible? Questions of blame trickle away like sand through fingers as you watch Metcalf’s elusive, upsetting interpretation of a woman who has so little control over her own mind and tongue, and yet who is so loved that she has total control over everyone else’s. James senior is played by David Suchet with a grit and wired tension in every smile, exploding periodically under the pressure of his fears and love, a very forgivable character. He is marvellous in this, more convincing to my eyes than his not dissimilar recent turn as another irascible American immigrant father with secrets, Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, though that might be partly due to O’Neill’s superior writing.

The production looks old-fashioned to advantage, with a telling claustrophobia - every brown plank of the gloomy wooden interior designed by Lez Brotherston appears to have been hammered down by 19th-century carpenters, and fog sneaks coldly through the verandah doorway from the trees outside. It is exactly what tight James would buy, and then cut corners on the electricity with.

And it’s an unimprovable cast that the veteran director of stars, Anthony Page, has assembled here, held on a taut emotional highwire. Suchet’s glittering thespian charisma and Metcalf’s translucent brittleness do explain, as parents, both the sardonic carapace of Jamie, acutely well performed by Trevor White with a rich yet constrained body language in credible contrast with the more dramatic gestures of Suchet as his father, and also the raw sensitivity of Kyle Soller’s Edmund, who rises with passion and fatalism to his bitter future, all the more moving because it's so fiery and fresh. Sweet work too in Rosie Sansom's comic cameo as Cathleen, the maid.

Not your fun night out, then, but performed as tremendously and vibrantly as this, this great play is cathartic in the timeless sense, undamming unspeakable emotions, and uplifting, despite all.

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