Review: The Hairy Ape, Southwark Playhouse

“Dat’s de stuff! Let her have it! All togedder now! Sling it into her! Let her ride! Shoot de piece now! Call de toin on her! Drive her into it! Feel her move! Watch her smoke!”

I loved Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar last year and thought his Long Day’s Journey Into Night was truly exceptional when I caught it earlier this year, so the prospect of one of his lesser known works – The Hairy Ape – at the ever-inventive Southwark Playhouse was one that intrigued and so I let myself be talked into catching it just before it closed. It is definitely closer to the former of the above-mentioned plays in its primal expressionism, tales of the sea and the search for belonging.

In the engine room of a transatlantic liner, Yank is the king of his world, leading his team of workers as they shovel away. His certainties are stripped away when a young upper class lady makes her way below-deck, leaving shocked and horrified at what she sees but opening Yank’s eyes to life beyond what he knows. His reaction is to try to find out what disgusts her but he soon discovers that she represents a whole world that doesn’t or won’t accept him.

O’Neill’s scene structure is quite choppy and so director Kate Budgen has adopted a physically compelling aesthetic with stylised movement and repeated actions working up and down Jean Chan’s transverse set which is bisected in the middle to create a cross. So the play frequently looks good and in Bill Ward’s powerfully drawn lead role, it pulses with a raw energy as Yank’s journey becomes increasingly fuelled by more desperate emotions. I have to admit to having frequent problems with understanding what he was saying though, O’Neill’s dialect was frequently close to impenetrable (especially when I couldn’t lip-read which was often, given the nature of the staging).

It was made worse by the fact that no-one else in the cast was using the same inflection and were mostly very clearly-spoken. Most people took on multiple roles but I did particularly like Patrick Myles, Gary Lilburn and Mark Weinman and found Emma King an intriguing presence. And overall, it was an intriguing piece too, a welcome opportunity to delve further into the work of a playwright who hasn’t necessarily been that well-represented in London over the past few years.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 9th June

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