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Long Day’s Journey Into Night review

I walked into the Wyndham Theatre’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill half-expecting a night at the London Theatre like any other. Beer in hand, I filed in with my family to the gorgeously decorated auditorium and sat watching the stage with the rest of the buzzing crowd, waiting for the show to begin. Initially, there wasn’t much to note- the set is a sparsely furnished wooden room, almost grey in colour, remarkable only in its plainness. The initial action was somewhat slow-paced as well. Brian Cox of Succession fame plays James Tyrone, an ageing Irish-American actor and property developer, with Patricia Clarkson as his wife Mary – recently recovered from an unnamed illness – and Anthony Boyle and Daryl McCormack as his two unruly sons. We’re initially presented with a rather pleasant family set-up, with acting that didn’t stand out – I found Clarkson’s performance in particular rather clunky, though, as later events were to show, this was entirely deliberate on her part.

Image Credit: Thomas Berg / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

It takes time for the plot to unravel in this extremely long play – a three hours and ten minutes run time, with a single interval of only fifteen – but unravel it steadily does. In a series of sinister underhand comments and hints of suspicion and suggestion, O’Neill’s masterful script slowly opens the lid on how fearsomely dysfunctional this seemingly-innocuous family really is. Mary’s recent illness is slowly revealed to have actually been a period of crippling morphine addiction, and Clarkson’s jittery and unsteady portrayal of her at the start is symptomatic of its recent resurgence. Younger son Edmund, played by Boyle, does not have a mere cold, but is likely suffering from consumption as a result of his heavy drinking lifestyle (his depressing story definitely discouraged me from getting another beer in the second half…). Older son James, played by McCormack, is a wayward alcoholic who spends much of his time in brothels, and Brian Cox gives a stunning performance as the elder Tyrone whose ungenerous and unsympathetic character is partly to blame for his family’s ills. The play is long, and slow-paced in the first half, but never boring. With each subtle reveal the tension mounts and mounts, aided heartily by the high-strung performances of all the actors. A perfect storm is clearly brewing – one which finally breaks in the second half.

O’Neill is known to be heavily influenced by Shakespeare, and this is clearly evident in his portrayal of bitter drunken arguments and moments of deep emotional pathos which punctuate the last two acts of this play. They are relentless and they are devastating. I found particularly powerful the conversations between Boyle and McCormack, offering a gut-wrenching portrayal of the simultaneous beauty and destructiveness of familial love. Boyle, McCormack and Cox all offered spellbinding performances in this half, wrought with passion and heightened emotion. But particularly memorable was Clarkson, whose depiction of a mother slowly losing herself in the grip of morphine was absolutely heart shattering. Thankfully, comedy relief is at points offered by an enjoyable performance from the maid Cathleen, recognisable from Derry Girls. All in all, the eventual ending left me emotionally squeezed dry. I truly understood the power of catharsis then – it was so overwhelming as to actually be refreshing upon its close.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is not an easy play to watch. At times, it is in fact, excruciating. It is not fun, it is not hopeful, and it is totally unrelenting. But it is masterfully written and masterfully acted from all parties, and I left it somehow feeling better about myself. For a Shakespearean inspired tragedy rewritten for the modern era, I would advise you to look no further. Though maybe mentally prepare yourself for the emotional rollercoaster…

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ runs at the Wyndham Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London until 8th June. This play contains themes of alcoholism and drug addiction.

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