Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson lead an impressive cast in Jeremy Herrin's production of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece

There’s no shortage of domestic dysfunction in the arts. From Thomas Vintenberg’s Festen to Jesse Armstrong’s Succession and The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, the awful ways blood traumatises blood have played out in every form imaginable. On the stage, it’s an even more potent brew, offering the perfect opportunity to trap a family in a single setting and have them let loose on each other, like a WWE cage fight if you swapped out piledrivers for passive aggressive barbs.

Few would dispute that, even in a genre that includes A Doll’s House, True West and Death Of A Salesman, Eugene O’Neill’s mostly autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night reigns supreme. Its content is so raw and eviscerating that O’Neill requested it not be even published until 25 years after his death (his wife waited three years in the end). But while the lens he turns on his stingy, critical father, morphine-addicted mother and bitter, alcoholic brother is unflinching, what elevates it to greatness is his compassion. Over the course of its three hours, Long Day’s Journey Into Night unpicks the complicated fibres of these people and finds understanding and forgiveness in the bleakest of situations.

The play takes place over a single day in a single room of the Tyrone family’s shabby summer home. Youngest son Edmund (a stand-in for O’Neill himself) has an unshakeable “summer cold”, matriarch Mary is bouncing back after a stay in a sanitorium to cure her morphine addiction, while father James and eldest son Jamie drink whiskey and drive each other into fits of rage with their mere existence. The tension is palpable. It’s obvious Edmund’s illness is far more serious than Mary can stand to admit and her fragile state has the rest of the family on tenterhooks as they creep around her, watching for signs of a relapse.

Long Day's Journey Into Night | Ticketmaster UK

The casting for Jeremy Herrin’s stripped-back take on this storied play is undoubtedly a big reason why every seat in Wyndham’s is occupied. The great Patricia Clarkson plays Mary, Daryl McCormack (Bad Sisters, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande) plays Jamie and Laurie Kynaston (How To Build A Girl, Fool Me Once) plays Edmund. Louisa Harland, who is rapidly emerging even beyond her Derry Girls fame, steals scenes with rambling comic timing as maid Cathleen. But the central draw has to be the casting of TVs most notoriously brutal patriarch as James Tyrone.

Even though Brian Cox will never not be Logan Roy (every explosion of temper is genuinely frightening when you’re in the same room as him), his James Tyrone is a very different man. Yes, he spends a great deal of time barking from the corner with a glass of amber liquid in his hand, but as Tyrone, his brutal criticisms don’t come from the same pit of cruel disdain. This is an even more complicated man, one whose every barbed comment could just as easily be addressed to a mirror.

Cox is magnificent, but is matched all the way by his co-stars. Their group dynamic feels so lived-in that the pain they inflict on each other is at times difficult to endure. Clarkson becomes almost translucent by the end, withdrawing into herself as every façade falls away, while McCormack continues his journey towards becoming a very big deal indeed.

In truth though, the play belongs to Laurie Kynaston. Edmund is the focus of so much of the family’s cruel, twisted love and Kynaston embodies each shift in his character, each adjustment he makes to accommodate his family, each flinch as a careless criticism hits home. His magnetic presence and subtle performance drill deep into the heart of the play, eliciting and reflecting the painful empathy that runs through O’Neill’s work. At one point, his rough-hewn hobo-esque appearance begs the question: was Chalamet really the best choice to play Bob Dylan?

There have been countless famous productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, from Olivier as James Tyrone in 1971 to Jason Robards on Broadway in 1988 to Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Bristol in 2016. It’s impossible to think that this production and this cast aren’t destined to join that illustrious firmament.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at Wyndham’s until 8 June 2024. Get tickets here