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Long Day’s Journey Into the Night sees Brian Cox back on stage

Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day's Journey Into the Night
Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day's Journey Into the Night

Long Day’s Journey Into the Night | Wyndham’s Theatre | ★★★☆☆ 

There’s a tricky balance in staging one of the great plays of the modern era. Do you faithfully recreate the text or risk bringing something of your own to the table? There are pitfalls with either approach – the Amy Adams production of The Glass Menagerie went straight down the line and ended up feeling like a stuffy period drama, while the Wendell Pierce version of Death of a Salesman took some risks, including soulful musical interludes, but lost some of  the essential magic of the text.

Director Jeremy Herrin takes the former approach in his adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s horrifying family drama. It takes place over a single day in the house – not to be confused with a ‘home’ – of the Tyrone family. Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist) plays family patriarch James, an ageing thesp who gave up on his Shakespearian dream to chase material wealth. His wife Mary is a morphine addict who lives out her days in a sad reverie for her youth. Their children, James Jr and Edmund, are poetically inclined but wayward and depressed, spending their days in the bar or the brothel. A lovely bunch.

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News that Edmund has contracted consumption sets in motion a spiral that ends in terrible recriminations and the saying of things that can never be unsaid.

Herrin is in no hurry to deliver this crushingly melancholic tale and there are times when it feels like an endurance test to see how much sadness you can absorb before you break (somebody appeared to on press night, barging noisily out of the circle just after the halfway point). It’s long, too, at three and a half hours including the interval – but what did you expect, it’s not called Short Day’s Journey Into the Night.

It all takes place on a sparse wooden set, the unadorned house reflecting James’s frugal nature and leaving no room for escape from the drudgery of these miserable lives. Fog, both literal and figurative, surrounds the house, and the blaring foghorn haunts the audience even during the interval.

Long Day’s Journey is an actor’s play, with each of the four central characters given space to really open up the throttle. While not as malignant as Succession’s Logan Roy, Cox’s James bears many of the same hallmarks, veering from pally to enraged in a hot flash. Cox is in his element here, although it’s a performance that doesn’t offer a great deal beyond what we’re now well used to; he doesn’t even attempt to put on an Irish or American accent.

The real stand-out is Patricia Clarkson as “dope-fiend” Mary. She really nails the terrible dichotomy at the heart of addiction, at one moment fragile and lost, the next full of vituperous accusations and bitter denial.

James Jr and Edmund are also excellently played by Daryl McCormack and Laurie Kynaston, the latter putting in nicely balanced performance in a tricky role as the brittle glue holding the family together. Even the housemaid Cathleen is hilariously brought to life by Louisa Harland.

O’Neill’s play is unquestionably a classic, one of the great American plays, a formative work whose influence is still seen across the spectrum of popular culture (not least in Succession). Still, I’d love to see a fleeter version of this play, one that’s unafraid to slice away at some of the baggier elements, as the best adaptations so often do.