Tag Archives: Eugene O’Neill

“Ah Wilderness!” at the Young Vic

Small-town family life, along with youthful ideals and romance, are the subjects of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! Infused with poetry and memory, Natalie Abrahami’s sensitive revival adds a melancholic edge to this surprisingly gentle coming-of-age story.

This is O’Neill in an uncharacteristically good mood as he dwells on domesticity, reminisces about youthful rebellion and speculates about parenthood. Tinged with nostalgia and filled with ardour the play has an almost whimsical feel that’s quite charming.

George MacKay

Ah Wilderness! is also a memory play and a work very much for fans of O’Neill, who feels like a huge presence in this production. Set directions can be heard in the background and O’Neill’s younger alter-ego, Richard, performed vibrantly by George Mackay, is followed around by David Annen, who slips into smaller roles while taking notes and observing the action – suggesting a ghost at the feast – with great economy.

There are also strong performances from Martin Marquez and Janie Dee as Richard’s parents, while Yasmin Paige tackles well the uncomfortably written role of a prostitute. But the star is Dick Bird’s eye-catching set: a mountain of sand, cascading from expressionist doorways, that contains hidden props. This serves to emphasise time and is a sardonic hint at an unhappy future.

This production has a lot going for it, but, sadly, its stories of lost love and innocence are not quite interesting enough. It’s a shame that, for all the care, attention and ideas, the play itself is a little dull. It may be a quality affair with no shortage of insight – and I doubt anyone will be disappointed by attending – but this doesn’t feel like essential viewing. Sorry.

Until 23 May 2015


Photo by Johan Persson

“The El. Train” at Hoxton Hall

Hoxton Hall has been transformed for a short run of three one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Billed as The El. Train, with the action set beneath the bustle of the New York Subway at the turn of the century, there are no long journeys to endure here as the short pieces run right on time. O’Neill’s bleak themes of desperation are easily recognisable, but this is an night of drama and action, backed by a superb jazz soundtrack, with original music from Alex Baranowski, that adds a satisfying unity to the evening.

The first two plays, Before Breakfast and The Web, are superbly directed by Sam Yates. Both star two-time Olivier Award winning Ruth Wilson who gives versatile performances as a downtrodden wife and an abused prostitute. Before Breakfast serves as a commanding monologue, produced with gripping precision from both director and actor. Special praise goes to the carefully delivered humour brought out in the production – a clear indication of the intelligence behind the whole evening. The Web is an even darker exploration of a criminal underworld. The unbelievable cruelty of a pimp, portrayed effectively by Zubin Varla, an heroic rescue, and a baby thrown in for extra emotion – there’s a little too much going on for its own good. But Yates does a superb job to embrace and pace the action. Wilson’s reappearance in this role, as a consumptive streetwalker, close to death, is tremendous.

A transformation marks the finest theatrical moment of the final piece as well, with Nicola Hughes metamorphosing into an elderly woman as she sings between the plays. In The Dreamy Kid, Hughes’ Mammy Saunders is on her deathbed, waiting to say goodbye to a beloved grandchild. He is being watched by the police and his visit will be a trap as his crime catches up with him. The play marks Ruth Wilson’s directorial debut, a cleverly modest one, which takes a lead from Yates’ work and maintains the high standards and exciting tension.

And to round off a fine evening, an accompanying bar benefits from the atmosphere the talented musicians on stage have established so well. The Hell Hole Saloon is a pop-up venue that ostensibly takes its inspiration from the Golden Swan saloon O’Neill frequented. It’s much nicer really, with themed cocktails, including a delicious hot buttered rum which is perfect for the season, and fantastic service under the supervision of award-winning bartender Joe Stokoe.

Until 30 December 2013

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 14 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Hairy Ape” at the Southwark Playhouse

Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape begins with a fleeting encounter between a grimy labourer and a spoilt rich girl who is appalled by a voyeuristic trip she takes into the boiler room of a ship. Vilified by the girl as sub-human and “a hairy ape”, our hero becomes haunted by the meeting, and goes mad in his quest for a sense of belonging and revenge. It’s a fairly slim idea for a play and O’Neill employs more passion than finesse in its writing – to the extent that one wonders why it has been revived at all.

It’s clear, though, that director Kate Budgen doesn’t have reservations about the work. Along with designer Jean Chan she embraces the challenges of the play’s various locations with intelligence and style. Budgen’s staging of the hot, violent situations, on the ship or in a prison, add to the drama superbly. The play’s finale, occurring none too subtly in a zoo, which might be read as unstageable, is a riveting moment of theatre.

Budgen also secures fine performances from her cast. There are minor issues with intelligibility from the polyglot crew of the ship but the fine line between camaraderie and competition is satisfyingly palpable. Taking the lead is Bill Ward who brings out the force of O’Neill’s poetry with a suitably virile interpretation. Also commendable are Gary Lilburn as one of his older shipmates and Mark Weinman who plays a socialist sailor keen to retell the men’s story as a class struggle. Weinman is skilled but, like much of The Hairy Ape, his character seems dated and predictable, no matter how strong the presentation itself might be.

Until 9 June 2012


Photo by Jane Hobson

Written 21 May 2012 for The London Magazine

“A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Apollo Theatre

Director Antony Page’s new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night marks a welcome return to the London stage by David Suchet. Taking the glorious role of tyrannical patriarch James Tyrone, successful actor and obsessive miser, Suchet’s performance is spectacular. In charge of a family haunted by the past, and with little hope for the future, Suchet isn’t just technically brilliant – listen as his American accent carefully slips into an Irish brogue – his stage presence is so commanding that it has you on the edge of your seat.

American Laurie Metcalf also returns to London, playing Tyrone’s wife Mary, and her performance is magnificent. Addicted to morphine, administered after the birth of her son, Metcalf’s lucidity wavers as she misguides her family and deals with her own demons. Sometimes painfully honest, at others simply a “ghost” inhabiting her own world, hers is a harrowing rendition.

Mary’s addiction serves to point out the failings of her whole family – the “fake pride and pretence” of her husband and her sons, finely performed by Trevor White and Kyle Soller. As the day becomes drink and drug fuelled, there’s “gloom in the air you could cut with a knife” but in this talented cast’s hands the play manages to remain tense despite its frequently delivered doom-laden conclusions.

To add tension to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is no small achievement as the play isn’t exactly suspenseful: this long day starts out fraught and doesn’t get any better. O’Neill’s miserabilist masterpiece is a cruel, brutal, examination into family life. Page has cut down the time we spend with the Tyrones – just under three hours – but this is an intense experience that can be hard work. When “the old man” bemoans being typecast you can’t help but think of Suchet and Poirot but, happily, Suchet couldn’t be further from fiction – this is a job he is up to and does achingly well.

Until 18 August 2012


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 April 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Sea Plays” at the Old Vic Tunnels

Filing through the Old Vic Tunnels to your seat for The Sea Plays you pass a tableau of a ship’s boiler room. The scene has an energy that continues into the first thing we see on stage – a storm at sea with the crew struggling against the elements. It’s an exciting piece of theatre that stirs the blood.

Unfortunately, matters go downhill as soon as The Sea Plays properly start. Eugene O’Neill’s three sketches show an injured crewman facing his death, a sailor subjected to the espionage-fuelled paranoia of his shipmates and finally a tavern scene with a criminal landlord exploiting those just off the boat. It’s honest of director Kenneth Hoyt not to make more of these pieces than they deserve; they are short and sharp but have little point. Critics often like brevity, but most audience members should beware if they are in search of a satisfyingly full night of theatre.

The cast sometimes struggle with roles only outlined and seldom developed. Matthew Trevannion gets the best bargain, in all three plays playing a character named Driscoll, a fiery Irishman he portrays with appropriate vigour. There are also good performances from Raymond M Sage and Amanda Boxer as a sailor with a dream and an elderly prostitute who helps swindle him. Van Santvoord’s set and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound design cleverly use the space of the tunnels, but creating these fascinating male-dominated environments is a tough ask and the swaggering machismo of the cast often falls short.

The Sea Plays are interesting for O’Neill fans but they are difficult to be passionate about. The scenarios are powerful enough and Hoyt’s direction taut and strong – he is clearly convinced of the trilogy’s power. But these vignettes are so short, and the writing often surprisingly melodramatic, despite O’Neill’s naturalist credentials, that the evening is more a matter of squalls than storms.

Until 18 February 2012

Written 27 January 2012 for The London Magazine