Gruellling drama was ‘written in tears and blood’

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TV’s Poirot star David Suchet is the box office draw in the West End production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which opened last night at Milton Keynes Theatre.

And whether the relentlessly gruelling domestic drama was quite what the audience of Poirot fans was expecting is debatable.

However, they were certainly fulsome in their applause for the hardworking cast at the end of the three-hour show.

And what a show.

Politicians who bemoan family breakdown and believe dysfunctional families are a phenomenon of modern society ought to be made to sit through this autobiographical drama, written in 1941 by a playwright who was born in 1888.

For emotional intensity, shock revelations, brooding resentment, addiction, sibling rivalry, life-threatening illness, disappointment, bitterness and more, all inexorably forcing their way through the veneer of family contentment, it was equal to at least 10 episodes of EastEnders.

Except that here the audience has work as hard as the actors.

You can’t let your concentration wander, secure in the knowledge that the soap scriptwriter is certain to bang home the message at least another five times before the end of the programme.

This is yawn-and-you-miss-it drama. Revelation builds upon revelation, until what appeared in Act 1 Scene 1 as a cosy family scene is torn apart, leaving each family member shipwrecked in a sea of regrets, recriminations, bitterness and lost opportunity.

It’s not an easy play to watch, and unlike some of O’Neill’s other plays, it doesn’t unravel into a grand tragedy in the Greek style.

So there is no catharsis.

All we have at the end of the play are the same characters, in the same situation, forced to face up to – or still hiding from – unpalatable truths about themselves and those they love.

Troubling stuff, and not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

The unrelenting dialogue makes the play a huge undertaking for the four-handed cast.

O’Neill called it a play “written in tears and blood”.

And although Suchet acquits himself very well, for me it was American actor Laurie Metcalf who stole the show, as the morphine-addicted wife and mother based on O’Neill’s own mother.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, March 17. Start time 7pm. Box office: 0844 871 7652 or www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes