Over 2 months later, I finally get to see the second part of the remarkable Northampton productions (have only Gareth and I seen these?). I am far less familiar with the work of Eugene O'Neill and if I hadn't known would have thought that Beyond the Horizon was a work by John Steinbeck. Apart from a few cameo roles (plus an adorable little girl) this is essentially a three-hander; two brothers who are devoted to each other and the girl who comes between them with catastrohic results for all concerned. This is a very powerful play even if the depression and misery is unrelenting. Liz White, who is so brilliant in Spring Storm, is slightly less suited to the role of Ruth; she is not quite able to suppress her natural intelligence to totally convince as a simple farm girl, but this is a minor quibble about an actress who seems to be destined for greater recognition. It is part of the National's remit to acknowledge work that is taking place outside London and these productions represent that work close to perfection. - David Baxter
20 Jul 10
BEYOND THE HORIZON
What a great pairing this early Eugene O’Neill play is with Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, also transferred from Northampton to the National. The three great playwrights of the 20th century were all American and seeing these two plays reveals the direct line from O’Neill to Williams to Arthur Miller like never before. This was O’Neill’s first full length play, a very assured work that I’m astonished has not been seen here before as in so many ways it betters later work. The story revolves around two brothers love for the same woman and her unexpected choice, which leads to a tragic turn of events. The one she chooses proves incapable of providing for his family and the one she doesn’t goes to sea so that he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of her choice. Again, Liz Smith and Michael’s Thomson and Malarkey give absolutely committed and passionate performances and the remainder of the small cast give fine support – particularly Joanna Bacon as a crabby mother / mother-in-law. The staging is impeccable and the design this time is spot on. The final death scene, with the characters not part of the scene observing in silence, was masterly. Another deeply satisfying theatrical experience. I think we’ll have to detain Northampton’s director Laurie Sansom here in London – he’s clearly far too good to let go! - Gareth James
27 May 10
SPRING STORM - Tennessee Williams wrote this play at University and it lay untouched for the next 60 years until it was first staged in the US in 1996; this is the European premiere. It opened here to rave reviews and for the first 30 mins or so I was wondering what all the fuss was about, but then it began to captivate me. It covers the usual TW ground – Southern sensibilities, social-climbing, mental illness, alcoholism…. The central character flits between poor macho man – who she loves and who her heart says is Mr Right - and rich wimp - who the family are promoting and who her brain says she should marry. What’s so fascinating is how, from a flawed early work like this, you can see the seeds of genius so clearly. It takes your breath away in the same way as it does when you hear a piece by a very young Mozart – you just can’t believe someone so young can produce something so mature. Of course, what followed were much better plays, but I suspect many playwrights would die happy if this was the pinnacle of their work.
There are some very good performances. I really liked Liz Smith’s energy as heavenly (what a terrific name!) and thought both the male leads – Michael’s Thomson and Malarky- excelled; this was a very impressive stage debut for Malarky (what must it feel like to have your debut performance go straight to the National!). I thought it was a huge mistake to have a back curtain on three sides as this required you to suspend disbelief a little more than necessary; in fact, though I appreciate the difficulty of moving from high bluff to home to garden to library, the design overall was the weak link here. I thought the voice-over stage directions rather quirky - it made it seem like a film – but I can’t say it bothered me. It’s great to see regional work of this quality being brought to the National. Congratulations to Laurie Sansom for discovering and bringing this play to the UK and thanks to Nicholas Hytner for recognising both the significance and the quality and transferring it to London. - Gareth James
28 Apr 10
Spring Storm. It is a brilliant idea of the NT to bring two outstanding productions of early works by great American writers to London from Northampton. Seeing both in one day might be a bit much but if the O'Neill play is as good as Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams then this project will be an absolute triumph. Although Spring Storm might not have the emotional or psychological depth of later works it is fascinating to detect hints of The Glass Menagerie and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof amongst others and Heavenly Critchfield, the infuriating heroine, is clearly a trial run for Blanche Dubois. Spring Storm is excellent in its own right, atmospheric and witty with a great sense of the class system and moralising of the American South. Some Americans behind me confirmed that the cast nailed the accents to perfection and there are some wonderful performances from Jacqueline King, Joanna Bacon and especially Liz White who is quite brilliant as Heavenly. A rare opportunity to see a relatively unknown Willimas and the Northampton production is a rare treat. - David Baxter
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