“You don’t suppose he’s been…
‘No, that’s love not liquor'”
It’s a little surprising and indeed disheartening to see that not even the cachet of two multi-award-winning productions in the last year can guarantee bums on seats on a Friday night at the Young Vic. We must have had 8 empty seats on our row for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! which is sad to see though to be fair, it wasn’t anywhere near that bad in the rest of the theatre. It just goes to show the unpredictability of the British theatre audience, especially when the lure of a Hollywood star isn’t there.
Personally, I rather enjoyed Natalie Abrahami’s production of this precursor to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, an imagined idealised version of his childhood that is given a further push into a dreamworld by the presence of an adult author-figure interwoven into the action, filling in minor roles where necessary, a persistent reminder that this is the realm of the memory play. It’s a gently intriguing choice, one underlined by the imaginative slant of Dick Bird’s sand-strewn set design and Charles Balfour’s evocative lighting, but it is one which works.
For the play is something of a slight thing, set at an Independence Day family dinner at which 17 year old Richard is coming of age as a son, as a boyfriend, as a creative soul. Abrahami bolsters it with some cracking performances – Janie Dee (starting off what will be a busy summer for her) radiates fretful maternal love even as she worries what will come of reading all those books, Dominic Rowan delivers some of the best drunk acting I’ve ever seen as permanently sozzled Uncle Sid (prefiguring the addiction that dominates LDJIN), Martin Marquez’s brusque but loving father also impresses at being drunk amongst other things.
And as Richard, George Mackay continues a rich vein of form that surely marks his as one to watch. His idealism could so easily be arrant nonsense but as he spouts poetry, flounders in heartbreak, appals himself as his treatment of his mother, experiences a saucier side of life and then works hard at redemption, there’s no doubting the utter sincerity behind his every action, even as we chuckle at the lengths to which he stretches himself. It’s a richly detailed performance in a richly humane production, wistfully seductive in its nostalgic dreaminess.