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The El. Train (Hoxton Hall)

Three short plays by Eugene O'Neill are revived at the historic Hoxton Hall starring Ruth Wilson

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Ruth Wilson and Simon Coombs in The Web
© Marc Brenner

Providing a background racket and a generic title for these three early Eugene O'Neill short plays (written between 1913 and 1918), the el. train rushes around the New York tenement homes of a clapped out poet, a consumptive prostitute and the dying mother of a murderer.

The production marks a bold new venture in the middle of an area that in many ways resembles the Greenwich Village O'Neill hung around in a century ago after he returned from his sea adventures and started to write (and to drink) seriously.

The Found Productions company has even re-christened the Hoxton Hall bar the Hell Hole Saloon, O'Neill's pre-prohibition drinking haunt that he later put on the stage in The Iceman Cometh, though the hot butter rum punch and snazzy cocktails on offer are a bit too trendily bo-ho to convey any sense of hooch vaporising all hopes.

Still, once inside, a mean jazz band blows through your bones and Nicola Hughes pins you to the uncomfortable bentwood chairs like a smoky Billie Holiday before taking to her bed as the dying matriarch in the third, and weakest, piece, The Dreamy Kid.

In truth, only the melodramatic middle play, The Web, is really worth reviving and nothing in the plays is made to seem as good as anything in the contemporary and slightly later "Sea" plays so memorably produced by Bill Bryden in the early Cottesloe era.

This has not deterred Ruth Wilson, no less, picking up where she left off in Anna Christie opposite Jude Law; she delivers two transfixing performances as the writer's ruined support system in Before Breakfast (the writer himself, played by Zubin Varla, hardly figures) and as an abused prostitute, Rose, in The Web.

In The Web, Rose's neighbour is a wanted safe-breaker (Simon Combs) who falls in love with her on the spot as the police chase tightens and all chance of salvation is dashed as soon as it's glimpsed. It reminded me a little of the middle act of The Front Page without the jokes or the journalism.

The first two plays are directed by Sam Yates, the third by Wilson, who does what she can to enliven a slightly written family reunion. Zubin Varla, Christian Edwards and Adam Sopp double up as actors and musicians, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Ony Uhiara sitting bedside in The Dreamy Kid.

The El.Train turns out to be more of a moody occasion than a theatrical discovery but there's some terrific sound and lighting by Alex Baranowski and Neil Austin that suggest the company might move on to some other, and better, O'Neill; let's hope so.

The El. Train continues at Hoxton Hall until 30 December 2013