Having won no less than four Pulitzer Prizes as well as being the first ever American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature, there can be no doubt that the name Eugene O’Neill carries weight in the world of theatre. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the playwright’s semi-autobiographical piece, is often held to be the very best of his works in spite of the strong evidence that exists to say that O’Neill did not ever intend for it to be staged. It tells the story of the Tyrones, a family with enormous problems stretching from tuberculosis to alcoholism and morphine addiction.
With the reputation of both play and writer in mind, as well as the knowledge of the production’s stellar leading duo of David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf, there is no denying that I entered the stalls with incredibly high expectations. Unfortunately, these were not, for the most part, to be satisfied. O’Neill was a man who knew theatre and I find myself inclined to think that this play would have been written very differently if he had intended it for audiences. In its existing form it relies strongly on an emotional investment in its characters which for some spectators may never arrive and is narcoleptically paced as brief moments of comedy and shining wit are punctuated with frustratingly long, tedious and depressing monologues. These monologues are often (although not always) circular without giving any sense of having advanced the plot – this quickly started to take its toll on me as a member of the audience. The play’s ending is highly anti-climactic – something which the delay in the audience clapping after the lights went down and the mutterings of “Is that the end?” attested to.
The standard of acting was universally high although in this regard the show was entirely stolen by Laurie Metcalf, whose portrayal of the decline of morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone was fantastic. I can only agree with the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer who noted that she “floated around the stage like a distracted ghost” in a poignant and emotive representation of a woman driven to medicate herself back into the happier days of the past. Her exchanges with her son Edmund, O’Neill’s representation of himself masterfully played by Kyle Soller, are particularly worthy of note.
The fairly minimal set, which did not change throughout the performance, was one of the most realistic I have ever seen and is certainly worthy of praise along with the lighting design by Mark Henderson. Light is crucial to the plot of this play in many ways and the production would have suffered if this had not been perfect but luckily it was faultless. The Apollo is a medium capacity West End theatre and the intimacy which this provided worked well for such an emotionally-charged piece, aiding the involvement of the audience in the Tyrone family’s volatile situation.
Although the play is certainly not a plot-driven piece, I did leave the theatre feeling a strange sense of satisfaction at having watched it unravel and come to completion in front of me. The outstanding acting performances were a joy to watch. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is mentally draining and not one I’ll be rushing back to in a hurry but overall I was glad I made the effort and there is definitely something to be gained through immersing yourself in the world of the Tyrone family.
6/10 – Whilst this play is not without redeeming features, it is hard work. Proceed with caution.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night closes at The Apollo Theatre on the 18th August.