Your expectations are always going to be difficult to meet when a play not only boasts a stellar cast but is also described as ‘one of the finest American plays of the 20th century’.
And as the theatrical heavyweights first take to the stage, the acting credentials are immediately obvious. Wonderfully wordy and poetic dialogue is delivered with absolute aplomb and Eugene O’Neill’s study of a dysfunctional family hits all of the right notes.
But there is a clue in the title of this play as to why it’s not quite up there with the best in the West End at the moment. It’s just so flippin’ long! At three and a half hours with no real storyline to follow, it’s a real slog and act two becomes an appreciation of the actors’ stamina rather than an engaging and stimulating watch.
That said, the back and forth between the characters is somewhat enthralling. Jeremy Irons (back on the stage where he began his West End career in Godspell in 1972) plays a miserly failed actor and is seamlessly able to switch from doting husband to aloof father, while his sons – the sickly Edmund (Matthew Beard) and profligate Jamie (Rory Keenan) – rile and torment him. And there’s a fabulous cameo from Jessica Regan as a plain talking maid, who adds some much needed comedy to take away some of the heaviness of the production.
But it’s 2018 Oscar nominee Lesley Manville who really steals the show as the drug addled and paranoid Mary. In fact, her lack of stage time in act two is part of the rub and when she eventually resurfaces from her morphine induced stupor to light up the stage once again, the play reaches its unfulfilling conclusion.
Director Richard Eyre has actually added on running time since the production was performed at the Bristol Old Vic and my attention span and posterior didn’t thank him for it.
Reviewed by Nicky Sweetland
Photo: Hugo Glendinning