EUGENE O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night is regarded as one of the greatest of all American plays, flaying the fabric of a family in the course of one intense day.
Mary Tyrone was once a romantically pious Catholic schoolgirl with dreams of the Sisterhood until she met matinee idol James, an Irish actor who was the toast of Broadway.
That was 36 years before the action of the play – decades of touring and childbirth and parenthood and parsimony and drink … and drugs.
Two sons Jamie and Edmund, both indelibly scarred by their upbringing, are back home for the summer in a beautiful but crumbling house by the sea. One is drinking and whoring himself to death, one is wracked with a consumptive cough.
Both blame their parents and love their parents and hate their parents.
In a day and night of drunken revelations, the men confront the reality of Mary’s addiction as she walks, increasingly ghostlike, through their lives.
Richard Eyre, whose first theatre experience was at Bristol Old Vic, makes his directing debut at the theatre which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. His cast includes Jeremy Irons, who trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had his first professional experience as a member of the BOV company.
He is joined by Lesley Manville making her Bristol debut, with recent BOVTS graduate Billy Howle as Edmund (the character based on the playwright), Hadley Fraser as Jamie, the older brother, and Jessica Ryan providing the light relief as the Irish maid.
Rob Howell’s set, its flickering lights bouncing off the reflective walls and ceiling, with the ever-present fog outside the picture window, is simultaneously roomy and claustrophobic.
James Tyrone is an old-style actor-manager who has dissipated his talent in pursuit of sure bucks, performing in a crowd-pleasing play for many years (in O’Neill’s case his father’s play was The Count of Monte Cristo). The role has been played by many leading actors, among them Olivier and more recently, in Bath, David Suchet.
Here Jeremy Irons and Richard Eyre have settled on a smaller reading than usual. There is little of the bombast and bravado of the words carried through to Irons’ body language, and he has opted to almost entirely eschew an American accent. Tyrone says he had forced himself out of the thick Irish brogue he had when he arrived as a boy in America, but (according to this performance) had then decided to adopt a very English style, rather than that of his new homeland … perhaps in celebration of his beloved Shakespeare? His enduring affection for his wife is beautifully done.
Where the heart of Long Day’s Journey into Night is usually James Tyrone, here it is Mary, in a simply spellbinding performance by Lesley Manville. As the morphine begins its insidious progress, her memories and current concerns come pouring out in a stream of consciousness accompanied by preoccupations with her hair and appearance, ignoring the reality of her son’s illness.
Billy Howle is proving his student promise as the wracked Edmund, and Hadley Fraser has the least loveable of all the roles as the drunken James Jnr.
The run is almost sold out, and the performances may settle down, but if you can get a ticket to see Lesley Manville’s performance, it’s probably worth the walk to Bristol if you fear the traffic.
Photographs by Hugo Glendinning
Update: This production opens for a West End run at Wyndhams Theatre from 27th January until 8th April. Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons head the cast, and the roles of their sons are now taken by Matthew Beard as Edmund and Rory Keennan as James Jnr.