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Ah, Wilderness! (Young Vic)

Natalie Abrahami revives Eugene O'Neill's family drama

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Janie Dee and company
© Johan Persson

After great productions of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, the Young Vic falters with Eugene O'Neill and his charming 1932 comedy recalling a much earlier domestic show-down once described as the flipside to his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

This is a bit of a bump after the euphoria of all those Olivier awards. But only the Young Vic would even think of presenting this play. Director Natalie Abrahami is good at the soft and tender side of it, up to a point, but her decision (with designer Dick Bird) to relocate the family Connecticut home on a neutral sandpit surrounded by "tragic" stone arches is a disaster of poetic pretentiousness.

For unlike Long Day's Journey, this isn't an autobiographical play, even though the main child of the family, 16 year-old Richard Miller (George Mackay), is an O'Neill clone of a romantic misfit finding his voice, his true love and spending a night with a prostitute (Yasmin Paige).

It's accidentally hilarious that Richard's brother, oddly named Arthur Miller (Ashley Zhangazha), sneers at the idea of socialism and labels Oscar Wilde a bigamist; Richard himself, whose kid brother is letting off firecrackers on this night of 4 July, belittles the "stupid farce" of the celebration while clutching a copy of Carlyle's French Revolution.

He and his mother Essie (a slightly uncomfortable-looking Janie Dee) and newspaper owner father Nat (Martin Marquez) also chat about Swinburne and Ibsen, she of course disparagingly; but this stilted stuff must have been avant-garde, or at least daring, in 1906, the year of the play's (though not this production's) setting.

For another major misfire is to have an actor (David Annen) feebly impersonating O'Neill himself in the 1930s, hanging about, swigging from a bottle, mumbling stage directions and reading out a letter to his wife Carlotta. Annen also plays the father of Richard's girlfriend, Muriel, which makes as little sense as Arthur, a stuffy Yale undergrad, doubling as the guy who takes Richard off to a louche bar.

There's something distinctly un-organic about the proceedings, and then you note the awfulness of the American accents – Marquez speaks in a wheedling nasal drone – though the stage brightens when Dominic Rowan's boozed-up Uncle Sid, returning from a club picnic, jumps on the family dinner table to deliver the most authentically brilliant, experimental writing of the night.

There's a history to this ground-breaking play, O'Neill's first on Broadway: the legendary George M Cohan played Nat, Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney were in the movie, and it holds a continuing and crucial place in the American repertoire. The Young Vic turns it into a wannabe "European"-style reading that is frankly embarrassing.

Water is always a nightmare onstage, though the late Patrice Chéreau made something beautiful and hypnotic of a stage flood in Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind here two years ago; the sight of Richard flopping into a puddle in the night-time beach scene where he sorts himself out with Muriel (Georgia Burke) is a serious tonal misjudgement, and the final speeches about love and the moon – and the renewal of his parents' marriage – seem trivial and banal as a result.

Ah, Wilderness! runs at the Young Vic until 23 May 2015