It’s a big year for Bristol Old Vic with its 250-year celebration making it the oldest theatre in Britain. It passes this, its showcase event with aplomb; director Richard Eyre, who was inspired to go into the theatre having watched Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet here as a schoolboy, working in the city for the first time on Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night.
It is a grand old play given a grand old production by one of British Theatre’s grand old showmen. That’s a lot of grand for your buck and is why this is a production surely headed for the West End after filling the coffers of Bristol Old Vic over the next few weeks.
It plays the trump card of bringing Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons back to the city in which he trained and started his career. Admittedly he is not fully on top of James Tyrone at the moment, still hesitant and not fully on top of lines or accent but he has the matinee idol past to convince in the role of a once promising actor gone to seed by success. He may not explode into volcanic eruptions of anger, his patriarch is defined by charm rather than fury, but he still crumples in Act 4 like the best of them. For 10 minutes, as he recounts the tale of his decision to sell his soul for success, not art, he weaves layers of magic across the stage, full of regret and remorse, a man whose natural affinity is to the poetry of Shakespeare, not to the commerce of the dollar. It makes you long for his fully realised version, one a little less hesitant, a bit more controlled, with a few weeks of playing it in perhaps the signs of promise will be revealed in all its theatrical power.
It means the acting plaudits are taken by Leslie Manville’s morphine-addled Mary. She is the beating heart of this production, making her first entrance gliding down the stairs in a wig that weirdly makes her resemble Glen Close in Sunset Boulevard and barely pausing for breath, lines tumbling out of her in a stream of consciousness that harks to the masters of Irish writing Beckett and Joyce. Her tragedy, made predominantly clear in Eyre’s production, is the fact that she has the strength of personality to pull this family together if only she could conquer her own addiction. Her boys are rapt, they adore her: from a husband who can’t keep his hands off her after a lifetime of marriage to the boys who will protect her from the ugly truth of their own situations out of love. The play ends on such a note of pain in Mary’s final dream-like monologue “and then in the spring something happened to me…”‘ and yet for the first time seeing this play I saw just the tiniest glimmer of hope, a little lingering flame that though will be snuffed by the faintest flicker of breath still burns presently.
The sons are both terrific in their ways. Hadley Fraser as the eldest son, Jamie, already broken and bitter, his triumphs in the past and washed up at 34, is making a thing of playing drunks (he was a memorably sozzled Grantaire in the Les Miserables 02 concert), and here gives a terrifyingly authentic turn, full of self-loathing, goading and speaking out in expectation and desire to be socked in the mouth. Billy Howle as the younger Edmund is a name to look out for, though perhaps a little robust to convince as a consumptive, he comes into his own in Act 4 with the two great sparring duologues with father and brother.
It’s sumptuous to look at in Rob Howell’s wood panelled set, shining like glass but enclosing you in a tight claustrophobic environment aided by Peter Mumford’s superb back-lit work while John Leonard’s continuous soundscape of foghorns hints at a family stuck in their own form of purgatory.
Tom Morris has opened up Bristol Old Vic during his time to the brilliant inventive theatrical imaginations of, among others, Sally Cookson and Kneehigh. What this production reminds us of beautifully is that this is a theatre also ideally suited to the great plays delivered with high-class production values. More please!
Runs until 23 April 2016 | Image: Seamus Ryan