“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Jeremy Malies in the West End
9 April 2024

As Mary, the morphine-addicted matriarch hurtling towards oblivion at the end of a needle here, Patricia Clarkson tells us that her first glimpse of dashing young actor James Tyrone (Brian Cox) put paid to any thoughts she had of being a musician or nun.


Brian Cox as James Tyrone.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


Well, even as we look back to their youth, that is difficult to credit on this showing in a version where Clarkson out-acts (though never upstages) the male lead. And it’s Clarkson who conjures up her character with the most invention as she feeds on brilliant performances from Daryl McCormack as Jamie (James Jr) and Laurie Kynaston as the younger consumptive son Edmund.

No oblique autobiographical content here from Eugene O’Neill; it’s searing factual family history that he could only countenance being performed after his death. And director Jeremy Herrin mainlines it to us in a production that would surely meet the playwright’s ideals of claustrophobia and brooding qualities. When Tyrone tells Mary: “I’m not your jailor. This isn’t a prison …” he emphasizes that even wastrel Jamie who takes a break to visit a brothel is trapped in this dysfunctional and vicious family unit.

There is little physical action here and Herrin rightly treats it as a series of flashbacks that launch arguments, with the only real movement being around a bottle of bourbon. Herrin excels in helping the actors drift in and out of inflated speech patterns as their various poisons take hold and they must tread between dignity and hysteria.

I may have been uncertain about Cox’s portrayal of Tyrone but I can say one thing with conviction. I would have scant interest in going to see this iteration of Tyrone acting in all the great male Shakespearean tragic roles even if (as the character reminds us) he used to act opposite Edwin Booth. This is ironic because double Olivier winner Cox has a stellar reputation as a Shakespearean, with one of those awards coming for playing the title character in Titus Andronicus.

But I could not see the grandeur and intensity of self-loathing that is explicit in the role. Cox proves only a counter-puncher in the family squabbling when he should be pulverizing. There is much talk here of sins of omission, and Tyrone’s major speeches include one about regret for having rarely tested himself on stage but instead playing safe with a potboiler drama whose box-office success set him up financially. This celebrated sequence barely registered with me. “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too!” says Mary. Well, I must stick in the past with David Suchet and Jeremy Irons playing this role, the latter also here at Wyndham’s.



Patricia Clarkson and Laurie Kynaston.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


Clarkson by contrast is forensic in charting her character’s decline from subterfuge in concealing her relapse (we know she has been in and out of addiction clinics) to a childlike state in the great monologue during which she prattles about early days in a convent. And she is disarming when analysing the exact reasons for her loneliness. The entry carrying her wedding dress (costumes by Lizzie Clachan) is piteous and shows O’Neill presenting the dress as totemic of a wrecked marriage. I thought back to an earlier line: “One day, long ago, I found I could no longer call my soul my own.” When alert her eyes radiate self-hatred, as the fixes of laudanum course through her they glisten and then become unseeing in her stupor.

Casting director Jessica Ronane has brought together a set of actors who bond even if it is only to bicker. Both sons inhabit their roles. McCormack is a mix of lewdness and decency as the elder boy who tells us in grisly detail about his encounter moments before with a fat prostitute. At the technical level he has absorbed the simple lesson that a drunk does not truly slur their words, they garble because they are over-enunciating. As Jamie drinks compulsively while pondering the need for complete blackout, I thought of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who must drink until the precise point when he gets a “click” in his head that makes him peaceful.

Kynaston has the tough task of quoting large chunks of Baudelaire and Swinburne. He pulls this off as well as conveying Edmund’s love of the sea, death wish (via drowning), and potential as a writer. At no time does he overdo the consumptive coughing which would be a lazy device.

Also the set designer, Clachan conveys the fact that this is not truly a home. The predominantly wooden living room has an unfinished quality indicative of the fact that skinflint Tyrone will only open his wallet so far and has little interest in furnishings. One of Mary’s many tirades against him underlines this. Much of the performance space is not lit or in half-light; this follows clues in the text about Tyrone’s stinginess with electricity bills and the atmosphere of confinement.

In the broader lighting, Jack Knowles uses hazy ethereal tints that suggest both the literal fog on the nearby Connecticut shoreline and the abstract fog in Mary’s brain. I was at the rear of the stalls and noted an audio blanket of white noise coming from the technical desk as part of sound design by Tom Gibbons. This was presumably to convey the hum of the nearby harbour, though I simply thought it was misguided.

Back to Cox; he is at his best confronting the carnage caused by the addiction. “Mary, won’t you stop now?” He also oozes pride in Irish bogtrotter (Tyrone’s own word) lineage and is at his most hateful when telling Edmund that his diseased lungs don’t come from the Irish side of the family. The Irish theme is reinforced by Cathleen the maid played by Louisa Harland who might want to find a bit more light and shade. There are comic turns and there are comic turns as the amusing servant. This is not a play for caricature.

Observing the classical unities, we are hurtled through the 24-hour plot in its single location with nothing wasted on incidental activity. Herrin leaves intact Tyrone’s belittling of early 20th-century socialists, and the attitudes to consumption underline that we are in the original time scheme of 1912. But nothing is anchored too firmly or smacks of being prescriptive.

Clarkson is magnificent and yet I left underwhelmed. O’Neill stressed in a dedicatory note that this was about “four haunted Tyrones”. The principals must all excel. Perhaps I should have liked the production more but everything in the play is about reactions to Tyrone Snr who represents the external world. Reservations about Cox stayed with me, and I don’t believe this version will chase away any of O’Neill’s ghosts.