Jeremy Irons was wonderful. I like his film acting but am not a huge fan – I find him a bit more “theatrical” than my taste for the kind of performances I love, though I certainly enjoy his work. But that theatricality clearly pays off well on stage when you’re in the…well, theater.
I can’t say I love the play – it’s less plot-driven than I prefer, but it’s nonetheless an excellent, vibrant piece of work, and all the characterizations are rich, as the Tyrone family deals with their many demons during the course of the long day. Mary, the mother, riveted with insecurities and morphine addiction. The youngest son Edmund -- loosely based on the playwright -- who has contracted tuberculosis ("consumption," they call it here). Jamie, the eldest, an alcoholic who hasn't held down a serious job. And towering over them all is the patriarch James Tyrone, filled with a need to judge and rule over them all. Oddly, dark as the play clearly is -- indeed, almost literally for the second act as the father wants to save on electricity... -- it's not a bleak play through, filled as it is with its share of humor. And also the blunt honesty of all the characters, well, except for the mother, and even she has her moments, help keep the play from being dragged down into the morose, along with their affection for each other which comes through.
The play, by the way, was produced posthumously on Broadway in 1956 and won the Tony Award for Best Play, with the Pultizer Prize being given to the late-O'Neill.
The performances were quite good, though some better than others. (Being all British/Irish, they have good American accents, but are a bit flat for it, so there isn’t ideal texture), however Irons rises far above everyone, and makes the evening absolutely well-worth it. There's a richness and deep coloring of details which bring the moments of his life together. It's a much more passive character than we're used to seeing him play, though he's clearly the man in charge, almost manipulative in his quiet. Where he especially shines is a sequence of about 30 minutes in the second act, sitting with his youngest, Edmund, trying to describe his past to explain his actions now. Although it's the two characters, for all sense and purposes it's a half-hour monologue.
Lesley Manville as the mother (she got an Olivier nomination as Best Actress in the British production) was very good in an extremely difficult "flighty" role, though a touch inconsistent in the first act for my taste, mainly because of her voice (more on that in a moment) – but she came to life where it most counted, with a tour-de-force performance in what is virtually her own 20-minute monologue that opens Act Two. Again, there's another character on stage, the summer housemaid (played by Jessica Regan in the small role), but she is there mainly to ask some questions and be a witness as the mother opens up about her life. Manville used a high-pitched, shaky, flat American accent which on occasion got in the way in the first act (at intermission, I kept imagining Jessica Tandy doing the role and being riveting), but she was still good there, though as I said she was tremendous in that 20-minute second-act opening. I also didn't realize until later that not only was she a highly accomplished film and stage actress, with numerous awards (such as winning the Olivier Award as Best Actress in Ibsen's Ghosts) and appearances in such films as Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Malificent, Milk, and many more -- but I saw her last year in her Oscar-nominated role as Best Supporting Actress in Phantom Thread, playing Daniel Day Lewis's sister and couture manager.
The two sons, played by Rory Keenan as Jamie, and Matthew Beard as Edmund, were both solid but not at the level of the others. I preferred Keenan, who was boisterous, though didn't have the edge I sense the character is best-served by. Beard had some wonderful moments, but struck me as uneven.
Fun facts: In that original Broadway production in 1957, the elder son Jamie was played by Jason Robards, Jr., and the small role of the housemaid was performed by Katherine Ross (who later co-starred in The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
Here's a brief, and mediocre trailer for the production, but it will at least give you a small sense of the show.
But here also is a five-minute interview with Irons and Manville which not only is quite interesting, but it includes brief footage from the production, as well as some from Phantom Thread.