Long Day’s Journey Into Night: We review a night of genius, whores and whisky galore

You might be forgiven for approaching the Wyndham’s Theatre with a sense of trepidation for a play which lasts 3 hours and 20 minutes. Eugene O’Neill’s master work is a tour de force for any five actors brave enough to tackle this monumental drama and at its heart, O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a soul-searching examination of claustrophobic family dynamics, drug and alcohol dependency.

Much of the Bristol Old Vic’s production is commendable. The set is a clever interweaving of period design and minimalist modernism, it’s monolithic glass structure both encapsulating the feeling of claustrophobia and yet bringing in the threat of the “outside” with symbolic references to weather, the ebb and flow of coastal fog echoing the haze of morphine-induced mental decline of the matriarch, Mary Tyrone.

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Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone – a matriarch in mental decline

The Tyrone family’s summer home, a mixture of wood and wicker mismatched furniture, grand but not affluent, evokes the state of the family’s finances, but as the play unfolds it becomes clear that this is perhaps more emblematic of the miserliness of Mary’s husband James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) than a lack of wealth. Irons is a dashing Tyrone and what he lacks in gravitas he makes up for in handsome grace.

James Tyrone’s relationship with his wife is complex. There are moments of cruelty – as James tells his sons “She’s so fat and sassy there’ll soon be no holding her” but rather than intending to insult, these barbs come with a sense of genuine affection which is at once unsettling and reassuring. The deliberate overlap of dialogue gives early scenes a sense of pace but occasionally the cacophony of voices can overwhelm the subtleties in the dialogue.

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Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville embrace, but can their love survive through the fog of addiction?

Lesley Manville’s virtuosic portrayal of Mary is as vulnerable as it is statuesque. She seems to live on her nerves – hardly surprising with one son throwing away his salary on whores and whiskey and the other a sensitive consumptive. The fog which seems to blight seaside Connecticut symbolises Mary’s mental state, as she stumbles through her days in a haze of addiction.

Often it is their sons who speak plain truth. James Jr (Rory Keenan) in whom whiskey seems to liberate verity, often at the expense of tact, seems to say what no-one else can – or what they choose not to. Keenan’s performance is solid, but bearing a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt helps distract from a vocal delivery that occasionally put me in mind of Krusty The Clown (another off-shoot from a dysfunctional American family).

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James Jr (Rory Keenan) – plain speaking and whiskey swigging Brad Pitt look-a-like.

Mary’s frail nerves are not helped by a sense of homelessness – this summer home giving way at long intervals to time spent on trains and in hotel rooms. Her sense of envy is palpable when the neighbours drive by in their new Mercedes but it’s their seeming respectability rather than their car which she really envies. “I have always hated this town and everyone in it” is said without malice, and there is a heart-breaking honesty when she tells her husband that “this home was wrong from the start” and that “the only way is to make yourself not care”.

Her neurosis plays heavily upon her relationships with her sons, both of whom care deeply for their mother, often manifesting itself in obsessing about details “Why do you look at me like that – is my hair coming down?”. Their father is seemingly trapped by his own obsessive compulsion to acquire ever more properties, albeit with mortgages attached – and both are victims of their own past.

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Matthew Beard (Edmund) is introspective as be battles to survive illness and family implosion

Edmund, the younger son, is prone to coughing fits and is a cerebral being whose primary concern should be his own health (he is suffering from tuberculosis) but seems to care far more for his mother’s wellbeing. Edmund (played by an introspective Matthew Beard) is well-read and well-travelled – but in seeming to wish to portray this, O’Neill’s play often dwells in long languorous conversations about Neitzsche, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. While providing intellectually stimulating insight into O’Neill’s own influences (they are viewed with suspicion by James Tyrone who is a Shakespeare purist) conversations result in scenes which are often overly long and dramatically tiresome.

In a family dynamic further complicated by Mary’s blaming James Jr for the infant death of her second son, and accusations that her morphine addiction is due to her husband employing the cheapest doctor possible, scenes often repeat the same points and as a result the play feels over-long. Much needed comic relief is provided in the form of feisty Irish servant Cathleen (Jessica Regan) who lights up the stage every time she strides onto it.

Eugene O’Neill’s play is, as an intellectual examination of family dynamism and literary philosophy, a work of undoubted genius and Lesley Manville gives a performance worthy of an Olivier Award. For those reasons alone, this is a production worth seeing and worth sticking with. For this theatregoer, I just wished it had been 45 minutes shorter – sometimes, even in the presence of greatness, less is more.

You can buy tickets here for Long Day’s Journey Into Night for performances until 7 April  2018.

Running Time: 3h20m including one intermission

Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road

Nearest Tube: Leicester Square

The Kite Runner – Reveals an Afghanistan few Westerners see ★★★★

 

I came late to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner having somehow never read the Best Selling novel first published in 2003 or seen the 2007/8 film adaptation. I finally put that right with a beguiling stage version now running at the Wyndham’s Theatre – and it’s sheer delight.

The story concentrates on Amir (Ben Turner) and his friendship with Hassan (Andrei Costin) in 1970s Afghanistan. Amir has a privileged life: Hassan’s father is servant to Amir’s father, so Amir and Hassan’s friendship is genuine but hierarchical. Where Amir’s education has enabled him to read & write, Hassan, by contrast, is illiterate: something Amir delights in when he explains that “imbecile” means “intelligent”. Hassan looks up to Amir, not just as a friend but as a superior. His status as servant is dictated not just by his father’s position in the household, but by their Hazara (Shi’a) minor ethnicity – a sect widely looked down upon in Afghanistan.

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Amir (Ben Turner) and Hassam (Andrei Costin) Photo: Robert Workman

There is a great deal of humour in the play’s early scenes, with Matthew Spangler’s skilful adaptation deftly revealing the social complexity of Amir and Hassan’s friendship in a series of vignettes reminiscent of Blood Brothers. The young Amir may be educated, but even his naivety shows through when he asks his father, Baba (Emelio Doorgasingh) why John Wayne doesn’t speak Farsi since he is Iranian?

But, there are truths buried in Kabul and truth has a way of clawing its way to the surface. Kabul pre-1973 was largely peaceful, at least if you had money. Whisky was drunk and life was relatively carefree. The young Amir showed a skill for storytelling. In Hassan he had a captive audience, but Baba was largely disinterested – just wishing his son be more brave. Amir’s first story, of a man who discovers a magical bowl into which every tear cried becomes a pearl becomes a parable; the bowl is found by the happiest man in the world but whose greed ultimately overpowers him.

The play’s first truly chilling moment comes in the form of the bullying Assef (Nicholas Karimi). Karimi’s physical portrayal of the Sociopathic Assef is uncomfortable to watch as Amir is confronted in the street. Only the threat of Hassan’s slingshot saves them on their first meeting, but it is portentous and all the more chilling in hindsight.

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Only the threat of Hassan’s slingshot saves them… Photo: Robert Workman

Barney George’s design, Charles Balfour’s lighting and William Simpsons’s projections are simple but highly effective, allowing seamless transitions from homes to streets with just the drop of a curtain or moving of a trunk but it is the soundscape created through a mixture of pre-recorded sounds and live drums, wind and Tibetan prayer bowls, which really creates the show’s unique atmosphere – hats off to Jonathan Girling and Drew Baumohi.

The show’s title comes from the traditional afghan sport of Kite Fighting, where kite flyers compete with one another using strings sharpened with broken glass to try to cut the strings of other competitors. It’s after Amir’s greatest victory that Hassan runs to retrieve the blue kite he has cut down and is confronted once again by Assef. Amir arrives but, gripped by fear is too afraid to go to his friend’s aid as Hassan is raped. The moment changes everything for both boys and tears two friends apart.

Unable to bear the shame he feels for not going to Hassan’s aid, Amir begins to avoid his friend and then to shun his company entirely. Deciding it would be easier if Hassan were not around at all, he asks his father whether they could get new servants, and then in desperation, conceals money and a watch under Hassan’s bed.

In an act of pure self-sacrifice, Hassan confesses to a crime he has not committed, and even though Baba forgives him, Hassan’s father decides that they cannot stay where his son has broken trust and the pair leave the home they have known for forty years.

The Kite Runner Company
The Kite Runner Company – Photo: Robert Workman

Act two begins with Amir and Baba’s fleeing Afghanistan following the overthrowing of the regime and subsequent Russian occupation. Smuggled in the back of a suffocating truck, the journey into Pakistan is fraught with risk and should be a lesson for anyone thinking that those fleeing war-zones would ever do so lightly.

The cast do a great job with frequent switches of costume and character and Ben Turner’s solid central performance gives the twisting story a strong anchor through a story which moves not just a country away, but soon to the other side of the Earth.

A slightly clichéd introduction to life in America follows, playing to stereotypes and is perhaps director Giles Croft’s only misguided moment.

A new life begins for Amir as he embraces the new possibilities before him. Romance blooms in the form of Soraya (Lisa Zahra) in a Flea Market where old ways survive but new lives must be pursued. Baba lives to see their wedding but soon afterwards succumbs to cancer. After Baba’s death, the return of his father’s friend, Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan) reveals a shocking truth to Amir requiring a move in the story back to a post 9/11 Afghanistan, with new and still more terrible risk.

The Kite Runner offers a tantalising glimpse into a country of extremes and confusing beauty. Ben Turner’s central performance is solid and touching, and Nicholas Karimi’s disturbing portral of Assef is remarkable. But for me the show’s star was Andrei Costin’s utterly endearing and heartbreakingly vulnerable Hassan.

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The Kite Runner Company – Photo: Robert Workman

At times, particularly in Act Two, the storytelling begins to feel a little laboured and the show would benefit from a few tweaks to speed the story along, but this warts-and-all story of a privileged but damaged life in Kabul reveals a side to Afghanistan that few Westerners see and never forgets that humanity can be found in even the darkest corner of our world.

Buy tickets for The Kite Runner, running until March 11
Wyndham’s Theatre
Charing Cross Road WC2H 0DA