I don’t think this rare Eugene O’Neill play has had a production here for 25 years – and that was in German, part of Thelma Holt’s international season at the NT. In fact, I don’t remember any other production in London in my theatre-going lifetime. Like The Emperor Jones, written just before it (and 20 years before Long Day’s Journey Into Night), it’s an expressionistic piece with a strong social(ist) message.
Yank (representing the working man?) is the natural leader amongst the stokers on a transatlantic liner, where the play starts. A visit by a posh girl, an industrialists daughter who seems to regard her sojourn below deck as an exciting adventure to see another species in their natural habitat, results in her insulting him - ’a filthy beast’. When in port in NYC, Yank’s walk on 5th Avenue is just as alien for him and, with the insult ringing in his ears, he hits out, resulting in a prison spell. Here he hears of a new union which he seeks to join on release, but his unbelievability means they think he’s a spy and reject him. He heads for the zoo where attempts to communicate with a hairy ape (filthy beast) result in tragedy.
It’s nothing like his intense naturalistic dramas, and it’s not a great play, but it is fascinating if you’re interested in 20th century drama, particularly American drama, and O’Neill in particular. At Southwark Playhouse, every aspect of this production comes together to create a stunning staging - director Kate Budgen. Jean Chan’s design makes brilliant use of this atmospheric space in traverse form with a central crossing. A grill and some smoke conjours up the engine room, a pair of ropes the ship’s deck and a handful of hospital screens, rope replacing fabric, turn into seven prison cells. Crowded 5th Avenue is more crowded with each actor carrying a manequin head. Richard Howell’s lighting does much to aid these transformations, as does Tom Gibbons sound scape (the final scene, in virtual darkness, is particularly effective). The opening is also superb, as the men seem to rise as one from the bowels of the ship – this, and the rest of Lucy Cullingford’s movement work, is outstanding.
There isn’t a fault in the casting and sometime Corrie bad boy Bill Ward is a revelation as Yank. It couldn’t be much further from his last job, Million Dollar Bash, as the only non-singing character. Here he brings huge passion and conviction to the role and the transition when he leaves his comfort zone, and his leadership position, is completely believable.
A must in my book – a fringe theatre showing how talented people can create great theatre on a shoestring. An unmissable opportunity to catch that rare species – an early 20th century play with bite.