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Long Day’s Journey Into Night review at the Bristol Old Vic – ‘first-class’

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Hugo Glendinning Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
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There is hardly a more gruelling, punishing play about the damage human beings inflict on themselves, and each other, than Eugene O’Neill’s searingly autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It was first produced 60 years ago, three years after its author’s death, and earned him a posthumous Pulitzer prize. But the best productions also make it utterly compelling to watch, even if it is the deeply uncomfortable sort of show that makes you want to avert your gaze, yet you find yourself absolutely unable to do so.

Richard Eyre’s new production is definitely in this category. This anguished family portrait is also a searing study of addiction and its effects; the matriarch Mary Tyrone, to morphine; the elder son Jamie, to alcohol. But while the truth is often danced around – especially when it comes to what is really happening with the health of the younger son Edmund, who has tuberculosis – this is not a family for whom it comes naturally, especially thanks to the controlling power of patriarch James, a once-successful stage actor who has squandered his talent by playing the same role too often.

The fine quartet of actors that play them – the only other character in the play is an Irish maid – make their interactions detonate with a controlled rage, even fury, yet also a deep love and compassion, too.

The production is dominated by the hollowed-out sense of engulfing disappointments and financial fears that Jeremy Irons brings to James and the bristling self-awareness of Lesley Manville’s Mary as she starts falling off the precipice into addiction once again.

Irons, who trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and made his professional debut on this stage, is everywhere on the big screen at the moment – he has starring roles in the current releases Batman v Superman, High-Rise and The Man Who Knew Infinity. He has a real command of the stage, if not always of his accent; but he knows for himself the maverick life of an actor and its costs. He recently spoke in an interview of becoming an actor “because I wanted to be a vagrant. I wanted to live real life, travelling and watching from the outside”. This supremely watchful performance, however, buries deep inside, too, to the depths of his soul.

Even more astonishing are the alternately febrile and shattered depths that Lesley Manville brings to Mary. Reunited with Eyre, who also directed her in her last award-winning stage performance in Ibsen’s Ghosts, she fearlessly inhabits a character who this time is trying but failing to manage her own demons, not those of a past that is catching up with her.

There’s also stunning supporting work from Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle as their sons, facing their own uncertain futures with poignant rage and disbelief respectively.

Rob Howell’s set, receding from a realistic parlour into a shimmering series of glass walls and a staircase, is superbly lit by Peter Mumford as an echo chamber of differently textured light for this reverberating drama to play out in.

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First-class production from a first-class regional theatre