Long Day's Journey into Night, Apollo, London Uncle Vanya, Festival Theatre, Chichester Chalet Lines, Bush Theatre, London

Eugene O'Neill's tragedy about a blighted and bitter clan embroiled in internecine conflict is given a masterly treatment

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A month in the country could drive anyone mad, even if all appears idyllic at first. It's August 1912 and the Tyrones – namely the veteran thespian James, his wife Mary and their two grown-up sons – have gathered at the family's summer home. This looks like Connecticut's answer to Chekhov: clapboard, wicker chairs, morning sun streaming through the windows. David Suchet's James, in cream linen, seems maritally blissful, whispering sweet nothings to Laurie Metcalf's Mary. Still beautiful, she smiles and checks the pins holding up her snow-white chignon.

Of course, a note of doom is embedded in the title of this domestic tragedy by Eugene O'Neill. Long Day's Journey into Night was based on the playwright's own family, as well as Ibsen's Ghosts. In some respects, it foreshadows Arthur Miller.

Brace yourself, then, for a darkening portrait of a blighted clan failing to deal with ruinous addictions, bitter memories and suppressed fears, generational conflicts and sibling rivalries. Even their finer impulses are compromised by financial concerns or compulsive mean streaks.

It's not all grim, though. Anthony Page's West End revival is beautifully modulated, quietly gripping and sometimes humorous. Suchet is on top form. His uxorious tenderness betrays a subtle trace of wary cosseting and he switches startlingly into an angry bark – directed at his decadent, whisky-swigging sons.

Metcalf's performance is, if anything, even better. Her mentally unstable Mary is riveting: the serene manner gradually revealing hairline cracks, the smile beginning to look strained, a gulp of panic when her husband yells.

As she relapses into a doped and dishevelled breakdown, her anxiety about her younger son Edmund's illness – possibly TB – is supplanted by self-absorbed delusions. It's a remarkably sympathetic as well as alarming portrayal of a dysfunctional mother, demanding rather than providing mollycoddling, terrorising the household with her fragility.

As Edmund's sibling, perhaps Trevor White could make his oscillations between brotherly love and malignity a little less obvious. Still, there's barely a weak link in Page's team, barring a couple of dodgy lighting cues. Kyle Soller rockets into the theatrical first division as Edmund, effortlessly naturalistic as he coughs and snuffles, sardonic and sensitive, leaning towards despair or weary forgiveness.

The Tyrones' mutual recriminations are repetitive and moments teeter on melodrama, but O'Neill keeps control with dry humour. This is an acute study of the behavioural ruts as well as the mercurial complexity of family relationships. See it.

In Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Jeremy Herrin, Timothy West's Serebryakov is a dull, gouty professor outstaying his welcome on the provincial Russian estate where his lonely daughter, Dervla Kirwan's Sonya, and her uncle, Roger Allam's Vanya, have toiled thanklessly for years. Now Vanya is besotted with the academic's young wife, Yelena (Lara Pulver). She has also caught the fancy of the local doctor, Alexander Hanson's cynically cavalier Astrov, and a storm is brewing.

Herrin's chamber production looks beautiful, all samovars and candles, Turkish rugs and silver birch trees. Nonetheless, it's too tepid and languorous, with a wan folk band amid the trees and insufficient frustration simmering beneath the surface. Several minor characters make Michael Frayn's translation sound unnaturally stiff.

The last act is heartbreaking as Kirwan – her love for Astrov unrequited – registers tiny darts of pain while stalwartly buckling down to work once more. Still, Lucy Bailey's rival production with Iain Glen – currently at London's Print Room – is more lived-in, funny and intense.

A romantic dacha it ain't in Lee Mattinson's serio-comedy Chalet Lines, which kicks off Madani Younis's artistic directorship at the Bush. The holiday accommodation, at Butlins in Skegness, is a shabby hut expressionistically blown apart by the set designer Leslie Travers. The floor juts into the audience like a collapsing pier, two beds clinging to the edge.

Monica Dolan's Loretta is a Northern, boozy and brassy mum who habitually insults her shy, musical daughter Abigail (gangly Laura Elphinstone), then forcibly tarts her up. Abigail's aunt, Sian Breckin's Paula, is kicked out when she tries to shield the adolescent. Gran (Gillian Hanna) looks on, then drifts into memories of her own domineering, life-wrecking mam – cycles of insensitive parenting, down the decades.

Alas, this is not an auspicious start for Younis. Let's hope he finds his feet soon, and doesn't oblige any more poor actresses to negotiate a steep-raked stage in four-inch stilettos. Best keep "break a leg" as a luvvie's metaphor.

More seriously, Chalet Lines is surely not the best script to have landed on the Bush's doormat. The characters are little more than two-dimensional, schematically contrasted. The jokes are feeble. The dialogue is loaded with references to trashy celebs and cheap high-street stores in a way that feels like a crass attempt to raise snorts of derision. Rising above these shortcomings, Dolan is formidable and Elphinstone is touching. All credit to their fine acting.


'Long Day's Journey into Night' (0844 412 4658) to 18 Aug; 'Uncle Vanya' (01243 781312) to 5 May; 'Chalet Lines' (020-8743 5050) to 5 May

Theatre choice

The mighty Globe to Globe festival gets rolling at Shakespeare's Globe, London, with his poem Venus and Adonis in a South African production (Sat). Or catch it on next Sunday, plus the Sonnets read in 25 languages. Swallows and Amazons, inventively staged by Tom Morris, is at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (Tue-Sat).