This superb revival of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece has everything you could ask for in a drama: powerhouse performances, delicacy, great writing – and a tragic personal backstory.
Dysfunctional families are the bleeding heart of serious drama but they are rarely so close to home as this one: O'Neill's dramatisation of a day in the life of the Tyrone family, written in 1940 but not performed, by his own request, until after his death. O'Neill said his heavily autobiographical piece was written in 'tears and blood'. And, watching the 'tightwad' old actor-father, the frail, ghostly mother, and the two self-destructive sons boozing, lying, trying to love each other but ripping themselves apart, is a long and heartbreaking look at the private crucible that forged America's first great naturalist playwright.
David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf (formerly of 'Poirot' and 'Roseanne' respectively) are exceptional as the father and mother, James and Mary Tyrone. Suchet, his head held high and his voice full of Irish-American gravel, gives a profoundly sympathetic portrait based explicitly on O'Neill's actor father James, who sold out for a hit role in 'The Count of Monte Cristo', a poster of which hangs on his sitting room wall.
Tyrone is a man who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, chosen commercial success over art because of his impoverished childhood, and is now too mean to replace his shoelaces when they snap. Suchet shows the actor's thespian dignity and his generous tenderness for his wife. But he is also funny and acute when playing the ham who, even in the extremes of drunken despair, poses at just the right angle beneath his sitting room light bulb when confessing his chief regret, that he 'could have been a great Shakespearean'.
Metcalf, by contrast, gives a completely unsentimental portrayal of Mary, who begins the day shedding tremulous rays of hope over her husband and sons because she is in remission from her prescription drug addiction, and ends it freaking out like a degraded elderly Ophelia on dope. In O'Neill's play, Mary and her sons blame 'tightwad' Dad for everything, including her addiction to morphine. But Anthony Page's insightful production shows that Mary is the real horror in their home.
Metcalf is unsparing: her grace, elegance and faded beauty make it even more horrible when she pours out sweet poison under the influence of the drug, berating her sons for being born and dragging them down into her fog. (Trevor White and Kyle Soller are excellent as her devastated boys, no-good thirtysomething Jamie and consumptive young Edmund who may yet, as his father hopes, have 'the makings of a poet'.)
The greatness in O'Neill's play – and in the American drama that it fathered – is its comprehension of the human cost of progress and indeed success in a country which prides itself on being self made.
'The past is the present,' says Mary, whose drugs help her wish herself back to her convent girlhood. But that's not the whole truth: O'Neill writes his family as crawling between the past and the future; striving to make it from what they have been to what they long to be; unable, except in moments of supreme self-sacrifice, to be more than what they are. His scorchingly honest portrait of them seems compelled by love as much as despair, which is why the experience of watching it is never depressing. This beautifully acted revival of 'Long Day's Journey' sends you into the night elated, with the sense of something understood.