The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill could be a right old ham at times. But he wrote about desperate lives like no other, and for all their pulpy melodrama, this trio of his early shorts bite painfully deep in the age of Atos, austerity and the bedroom tax.
The great English actress Ruth Wilson – who won an Olivier Award last year for her role in O’Neill’s ‘Anna Christie’ – has marshalled the three together into this classy package. Atmospheric old Hoxton Hall has been converted into a ’20s-style speakeasy, with deep red lights, high-end cocktails and live jazz deep into the night (the show is just 90 minutes long, but the bar stays jumping until 2am at weekends).
Whether the party vibes and £45 ticket price really square with the dramatic content is another question, but bitter pills need to be sugared and if you stick around for the music there is plenty of it.
The main attraction is the incandescent Wilson, who stars in the first two playlets and directs the third. In tragicomic opening monologue ‘Before Breakfast’, she is Mrs Rowland, the nagging wife in a couple fallen on hard times.
Buzzing around the stage like a nervous hummingbird, she surreptitiously knocks back moonshine while maintaining a constant barrage of criticism at her no-good husband, Alfred. It’s ineffably sad – Mrs Rowland is a mess, running on empty, and she clings to her string of barbs like a lifebelt, knowing she’ll drown if she stops to actively contemplate the grimness of their lot.
In the second, ‘The Web’, she is Rose, a throaty-voiced street walker with a terrible, wracking cough, desperate to escape the filthy Manhattan air but unable to raise the funds to take her child away with her. It’s a study in despair, of what happens when there is no one out there to look out for you but dumb luck, and it’s made luminous by Wilson’s anguished charisma.
The third play, ‘The Dreamy Kid’, follows a son (Simon Coombs) as he attempts to see his dying mother one last time before absconding from the Big Apple. There’s good work all round from the cast here and O’Neill’s story builds its way to a thrillingly cruel climax, but nobody on stage can match Wilson’s fierce presence, and the wanton trashiness of the writing is more exposed. Still, ‘The El Train’ is about ordinary people, not Ruth Wilson – maybe it’s appropriate for the star to step aside at the last.
By Andrzej Lukowski