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Irons throws himself into the fire

In his new stage review, TIM WALKER watches Long Day’s Journey into Night at Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until April 7


Nudging 70, Jeremy Irons is a brave man to make his West End comeback in, of all plays, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Eugene O’Neill was never one for brevity, and this sprawling epic clocks in at three and a quarter hours, which tests the stamina of those on both sides of the footlights.

One can see, however, what it is about the work that tempted Irons back on to the West End stage after an absence of more than a decade: the pivotal role of James Tyrone offers an actor the chance to embark upon a real journey of self-discovery.

Tyrone is a grand old man of the stage and patriarch to a family whose members are all, in one way or another, putting on a show. His wife Mary – played by Lesley Manville – is a morphine addict, and his sons Edmund and James – Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan – are stricken, respectively, with tuberculosis and alcoholism. It’s no wonder their old man takes refuge every now and again in a good whiskey.

Just after the turn of the last century, the Tyrones find themselves holed up in an old house on the New England coast. As day gives way to night, their hopes and pride and sense of having some control over their lives yield, too, to despair.

It might seem a shade perverse to cast actors as quintessentially English as Irons and Manville in the leading roles, but their accents are convincing enough and the chemistry between the pair is undeniable.

I’ve seen Tyrone played a lot more flamboyantly – the late Jack Lemmon, for instance, grew his hair long for the part and was all grand, actorly mannerisms – but Irons’s unshowy, introverted, short-back-and-sides version is probably a lot more like most actors happen to be in real life. Beneath the thin veneer of charm, it is easy to sense the character’s bitterness about a life that once promised so much, but, in the end, delivered very little.

Manville – teaming up with director Sir Richard Eyre again after their unforgettable production of Ghosts at the Almeida in 2013 – meanwhile manages to communicate very well a proud woman’s sense of regret at marrying beneath her, in addition to all of the jumpy, nervy, obsessiveness of a hopeless addict.

Beard and Keenan acquit themselves with distinction, too, as the sons – Beard might usefully look a little bit more ill, though – and the show has good looks, too, courtesy of Rob Howell, whose set is a cavernous glass conservatory.

It may not all amount to a great night out for all the family, but, for the serious theatre-goer, it is a rare gem. I would say the ultimate test of a good production of this play is how depressed you are at the end of it. On that measure, I can assure you Sir Richard Eyre’s production is triumphantly and gloriously depressing.