The headline performance in Richard Eyre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece is, inevitably, Lesley Manville’s. And quite right, too. Between appearing in the play at Bristol Old Vic last year and this West End transfer, Manville has been nominated for an Oscar, along with Daniel Day-Lewis, for Phantom Thread. Here, as Mary, the Tyrone family’s morphine-addicted matriarch, she is terrific.
Alongside Jeremy Irons, who plays her frayed and ageing actor husband James, Manville transmits the high anxiety of someone on the verge of relapse. Like Rob Howell’s design of the Connecticut summer house in which the action takes place (for this autobiographical play, O’Neill had in mind his own boyhood home) Mary’s primness and prettiness is superficial; her speech strained and urgent.
Notice that she has finally succumbed to the drug is delivered in a sudden burst of rage at her neglectful husband. It’s like watching Pollyanna suddenly pull a knife.
But, despite her excellence, Manville never quite reaches the heights attained by Jessica Lange in 2000 who was genuinely shocking when her Mary appeared exactly like the ghost her husband describes. And so the most eye-catching performance here is delivered by Rory Keenan, who plays the Tyrones’ eldest son James. His knowing gaze is a complete, damning indictment of his mother’s denial. Matthew Beard as the consumptive younger brother Edmund is also fine. And although Irons’s Irish American accent — with added plumminess to suggest the character’s Shakespearean past — doesn’t quite convince, he and Beard generate a heart-rending display of a loving, antagonistic father-and-son relationship.
As is so often the case with the titans of American drama — the others being Miller and Williams — O’Neill’s confessional account of his own family’s experience, the publication of which he wished in vain should be delayed for 25 years after his death in 1953, is utterly devastating.