The El. Train, theatre review: 'The real draw is Ruth Wilson, here both acting and directing'

4.00

Hoxton Hall, London

Three short one-acts plays by Eugene O'Neill are brought together in a snazzily tricked out old music hall in east London, given a speakeasy vibe complete with smokin' live jazz and a cocktail bar dubbed the Hell Hole after O'Neill's favourite haunt. As a performance space, it's high on atmosphere, if low on leg-room.

But the real draw is one Ruth Wilson (Luther, Jane Eyre), here both acting and directing. She's been an O'Neill fan since her searing, award-winning Anna Christie at the Donmar and The El. Train confirms that she’s got a way with his words.

The trio of texts focus on those living on the margins, or the wrong side of the law, and those not long for this world. Sam Yates directs the first two; Before Breakfast is a monologue, if largely addressed by Wilson to her feckless husband, once the “catch” of the town but now a penniless poet. Bitter disappointment in life and love has turned her into a hassling harridan, but her stream of caustic sarcasm is merely a cover for her vulnerability and fear. These are seen in glimpses, and Wilson is a master of the fine-grain giveaway gesture – a microscopic lip chew, a blink to bat away unwanted emotions. While a sense of imminent disaster is flagged up none-too-subtly by the reported presence of razor blades in the bedroom, Wilson really carries O’Neill’s over-expositional script, delivering a poignant, potted life-story.

In The Web, she plays a prostitute with a persistent cough, an unhealthy pallor, a baby - and a casually brutal pimp. It seems like salvation arrives, just in the nick of time, in the form of a good-hearted neighbour. But they're both from the wrong side of the tracks - and have both discovered there's no way polite society will let them back over, no matter how much they try to reform their ways.

It’s bruising stuff, but sadly this playlet teeters, like a one of O'Neill's drunks, towards melodrama - and in the final moments of hastily played out tragedy, totters over completely.

It’s for The Dreamy Kid that Wilson gets her debut directing credit. Mammy Saunders is on her death bed – even if Nicola Hughes (also a wonderfully stately, full-voiced jazz singer during scene changes) plays her with a quite comically indomitable spirit. She demands to see her grandson, Dreamy, but he's been up to no good... Simon Coombs plays the natty young black man, who seems almost amused to reveal he’s killed someone. But soon he must tussle with his conscience (and his Mammy's curses) - does he stay, as promised, with her in her final moments, or make the swift getaway that'll save his skin?

The interactions are snappy, and the characters bluster in and out of the sick room with a whirlwind energy; Wilson has brought out dynamic performances. But again, it's all played at too high a pitch - and even if that undoubtedly does match O'Neill’s equally high octane script, it doesn't necessarily improve it.

To 30 Dec; theeltrain.com

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