THERE’S a lot of whisky drunk in Eugene O’Neill’s compelling family drama, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and I felt like reaching for the bottle myself after being put through the wringer during three hours of emotionally intense familial angst.
This superb drama, which opened at Milton Keynes Theatre on Monday, leaves you emotionally drained but we’re let off lightly compared to the deeply traumatised and dysfunctional Tyrone family.
There are elements of this powerful melodrama that come straight from O’Neill’s own troubled life and one can’t help but feel sympathy for the distress he must have suffered.
There’s no happy ending here and, after enduring an eternally long and emotional day and night one is left wondering how the family could manage to survive any longer without killing each other. Every second of their existence is fraught with such intensity that it’s impossible to imagine them leading a normal life.
Ma, Mary, is, in 1950s American parlance, “a dope fiend,” hooked on morphine, “for her rheumatism” but in reality it’s to numb the pain caused by the death of a baby and birth of his replacement. Unable to get through the day without a little fix she’s become a manic depressive who’s irrational and unpredictable behaviour, not to mention endless gabbling, infects the air with tension and foreboding. Everyone is walking on eggshells, worried that a wrong word or gesture will send her, once again, off the rails or worse.
The old man, James Tyrone, is an Irish émigré whose aspirations to become a great actor were dashed by his wife’s behaviour and, possibly his own failings. He’s a passionate and charismatic man who, seeing his own ambitions thwarted, is disappointed that his two sons have failed to do any better.
Younger son Edmund, “a bum reporter on a local rag” is suffering from consumption, which killed his grandfather, while Jamie was coerced into following his dad onto the stage without much talent or enthusiasm.
In fact while we watch the mother rapidly unravel the three Tyrone men celebrate their Irish roots by hitting the whisky with a vengeance.
All four are angry, embittered and disillusioned, trapped in a stormy and ultimately destructive relationship which, over the course of some hours, erupts into violence.
The audience are trapped in the living room of the family’s summer residence and, after three hours of listening to them physically and mentally abuse each other, I needed some fresh air. This brief look through a window into their lives was exhausting and I cried out for some light relief.
David Suchet’s powerful performance as a frustrated actor and sometime property tycoon is mesmerising and from the heart. James has worked his way up from poverty and is now parsimonious with his hard earned cash. His uneasy relationship with his sons is built on their disrespect and his intolerance and will be familiar to parents of teenage and working age children.
The ever watchable Kyle Soller had to compete, with his bouts of consumptive coughs, with phlegmy members of the audience who came out in sympathy with the brilliant young actor.
But it was Laurie Metcalf who won the first night crowd’s empathy as the unstable wife and mother. It’s a part that must leave her completely drained each night. She’s likely to be teetering on the edge herself by the time this makes its West End debut.
The difference between English playwrights and their American counterparts is that our characters like to maintain a stiff upper lip with emotions firmly in check. O’Neill, like Tennessee Williams, puts it right out there on the stage. Every emotion ramped up to the max. There were times during Long Day’s Journey when I longed for a bit of British reserve. Nonetheless, it is a superb revival of a 1950s great classic and in the hands of an incredibly talented cast.
Running until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 08448717652 or go online www.atgticklets.com/miltonkeynes