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Long Day's Journey into Night (Bristol Old Vic)

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville star in Eugene O'Neill's towering family tragedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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In the 250th anniversary year of Britain's oldest working theatre, it's a homecoming for both the director, Richard Eyre – as a15 year-old, he saw Peter O'Toole play a game-changing Hamlet on this stage – and for Jeremy Irons, who trained and began his career in the city with, as it happens, his marital best man Christopher Biggins.

No place for Biggins in Eugene O'Neill's mother of all dysfunctional family dramas, not even as the maid – who is played with a peaty, bog Irish slyness by Jessica Regan – but Irons and Eyre, with Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone, the lost maternal convent girl drifting away on sweet substances, do the old place proud.

I appreciate that artistic director Tom Morris wants to do all sorts of community-inclusive things at the Vic – "Come and have a go" was the chilling mantra in his pre-show presentation for the open doors anniversary weekend at the end of May – but this perfect, still amazing Georgian auditorium comes most alive with proper plays and proper actors.

Eyre's relatively uncut version of O'Neill's sweaty masterpiece – fuelled with booze and the ghastly family point-scoring that is usually confined to polite exchanges in an Alan Ayckbourn play but here leaps out like a louche leprechaun in a no-holds-barred confessional booth – comes in at three hours and a quarter. And still they go at it like the clappers, especially in the first act, Irons shaking like a leaf and scowling dangerously.

For, while Jeremy looks the part of the dissolute, mean-minded, self-regarding old one-hit actor James Tyrone (and I'm not going to bring up Olivier's amazing turn in the role at the National forty years ago), he's not quite on top of it yet. He smokes four great cigars and looks dashing, debonair and doltish before crumbling magnificently.

Olivier's Mary was the graceful, lady-like Constance Cummings. Manville does something quite different in playing a sharp-edged neurasthenic morphine addict, fidgeting like a flea, anxiously engineering the slightest excuse to dart upstairs for a fix, careful not to dislodge a piled-high silver wig which will inevitably collapse for the mad scene at the end.

The Tyrone sons, the failed actor whore-master James Jr and consumptive poetry-obsessed Edmund, forever quoting Swinburne, Rossetti and Dowson, are pretty well done by a watchful, stooping Hadley Fraser and a surprisingly robust, almost Branagh-esque, Billy Howle; the latter's big scene with his dad is absolutely heart-breaking.

You get a terrible sense of this Irish Catholic family preying on each other, instead of praying for each other; and I made a note of various lines of Manville's Mary that shoot out of the enveloping gloom like poisoned arrows: "One day I found I could no longer call my soul my own."

The play moves from the everyday coming and going into the mists of the semi-conscious – and this rigmarole, you realise with a shock, must be a daily, and nightly, ritual of destruction – partly induced by the drink, of course, but also by Rob Howell's brilliant design of a book-lined battleground melding into a skeletal, structural interior, lit gorgeously from behind by Peter Mumford and hemmed in by John Leonard's insistent soundscape of tragic fog horns and gently pealing, recriminatory church bells.

Long Day's Journey into Night runs at Bristol Old Vic until 23 April.

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