Theatre Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night @ Bristol Old Vic

by Abi Hack



Despite some questionable American accents and numerous stumbled lines – the most noticeable coming from the acting legend Jeremy Irons himself – Bristol Old Vic’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a mostly seamless performance that had its packed out audience holding onto every word; an impressive feat considering just how many lines had been crammed into the three hour production.


Long Day’s Journey Into Night is often considered one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest accomplishments, with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tony Kushner (Angels in America) going so far as to say: ‘he wrote 49 plays that lay the groundwork for serious American drama, and only one seriously great one, but great enough to be worth the wait.’

The semi-autobiographical play follows the dysfunctional lives of the Tyrone family – James (Irons), Mary (Lesley Manville), James Jr (Hadley Fraser), Edmund (Billy Howle) – and exposes the trials and tribulations that steadily reveal themselves across the duration of a single day. In this short space of time we see the affects of an on-going drug addiction, the aftermath of an acting career, distorted financial values, the unravelling of tentative familial relations, sickness, infant death, loneliness, and alcoholic tendencies, to name a few. This is truly a drama of epic proportions. 


The production has taken its direction from Sir Richard Eyre, who described the play's characters as ‘frustrated, disillusioned, collapsing, cracking up.’  The play stays true to this feeling of frustration, but this often comes from the audience and not the characters. The fast paced nature of the performance forced numerous verbal hiccups from the actors, and in these moments the audience were somewhat prevented from becoming fully absorbed in the action; a risk one takes when getting involved with live theatre. Additionally, we were frequently left startled by the vast amounts of information being thrust at us, however, overwhelming as this was, it contributed to the intensity of the play.  Eyre stayed true to the emotional turmoil and dysfunction explored throughout the narrative, and deserves a well-earned pat on the back for his accomplishment.


Perhaps a standout feature of the production, which may be overlooked by others, is the success of Rob Howell’s set; a reception-room dominated the stage, with corridors, a staircase and porch creating the backdrop. The design oozed sophistication and class, yet the clever addition of semi-transparent walls created the feeling of an intimate setting, which when examined carefully, made the room appear open and haunting; a clever allusion to the emptiness and loneliness that Manville’s character so often referred to.

Howell commented, ‘if we have got the balance right, there should be necessary naturalism sitting alongside a modernity that might release the text from the scenic limitations of the period that it was written in, and for.’ This balance was spot on.


Manville’s performance undoubtedly deserves sigificant recognition, as her portrayal of the doting yet unhinged (and often hysterical) mother was spell-binding and a true pleasure to behold. Despite being up against the renowned acting ability of Jeremy Irons, she more than held her own, and even outshone him for the majority of the play.


Irons made a solid attempt at playing James Tyrone, an ex-actor whose stubborn nature and obsession with money dominates his personality, however, his performance was occasionally lost amongst his vast number of lines and an undefined accent.

Fraser (James Tyrone Jr) and Howle (Edmund Tyrone) provided a strong support for Irons and Manville, as they more than proved themselves against such prolific actors. Fraser was at his strongest during his emotional outbursts, the best of which appeared at the end of the second act, when an intoxicated James Jr revealed his morbid desire to see his brother fail. In contrast, Howle’s character appeared timid and somewhat naïve to the tragedy that surrounded him, yet he was not afraid to stand his ground when necessary; a violent outburst at the end of the play saw him attack his brother in defence of his ma. This showed an authentic and believable dimension to Howle’s acting.


Jessica Regan’s interpretation of Cathleen, the maid, was endearing and humorous, providing a comical rest-bite at moments of extreme emotional intensity.

Although long and at times slightly rushed, the superb acting ability of Manville and Howell’s staging masterpiece is more than enough to draw you to the Bristol Old Vic to see this classic American drama. 

Bristol Old Vic’s critically acclaimed production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night is transferring to the West End from January 2018, and will see Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville reprise their roles. If you missed this Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece at Bristol Old Vic, be sure to catch it at the Wyndham's Theatre. Book tickets here. 

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