THE FIRST MAN Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

EUGENE O’NEILL,  EARLY AND IMPASSIONED…

Well, God bless the little Jermyn. Director and AD Antony Biggs, an unwearying ferret of lost drama, has dug up another barnstorming early 20c number: a UK premiere, no less, from lEugene O’Neill. The author, it seems, didn’t much rate it in 1922, and went on to success with more famous The Hairy Ape (about to run at the Old Vic). But on this smaller stage, with an impressive cast of 12 , the forgotten work flares into savage, passionate life.

Opening with a familial “unfortunate tea” in a Connecticut front room, it hurtles rapidly into scenes so emotionally violent, visceral and verbally shocking that you hang onto the arms of your seat. After a brief interval, a looming firelit tension punctuated by eerie wolf-howls of anguish fractures in turn into jagged fury, before a final funeral scene puts the lid on it with the hero repeatedly seeming to charge like a maddened bull at an unnerved group of relatives wincing in unison. Unsayably shocking things are said, enormous dependencies and betrayals hurled around as a smalltown earthquake rips up family decorum.

It may be this intensity, growing too fiercely and fast, which made O’Neill shove it back in the drawer after early outings. Or it may have been that Curtis’ worst remarks had too much echo in his own family life. But it’s a pity, because it has all the furious vigour of its decade: a postwar loosening of gender expectations and a hysterical pursuit of science. Against a clever impressionistic set of curtains daubed with Lascaux cave drawings Adam Jackson-Smith is Curtis, a Post-Darwinian anthropologist off to search the Gobi desert for the Missing Link between ape and man. His wife Martha, played with dignified, humorous authority by Charlotte Asprey, usually travels with him as “a chum, a comrade…more efficient than a whole staff of assistants and secretaries”.
After losing two small children years before, they have agreed to seek what he calls “a more difficult beautiful happiness” than mere family life, which is suspiciously convenient to his ambitions . But his friend Bigelow (Alan Turkington) is a widower with children, and Martha at 38 now longs for a baby. The scene where she tells Curtis she is pregnant – after the awful tea-party with his stifling family who hate her for being a “Westerner” – has him rivetingly losing all decent control and shouting “I cannot understand! I depend on you! Treachery! Ruining our life!” “YOUR life” she says reasonably, and he goes wilder still with “There are doctors….”. Asprey and Jackson-Smith strike violent sparks off one another in furious, incompatible mutual need: it’s electrifying.

Then we meet the family again (a very fine ensemble, with flares of salty character for every one of the eight) lurking by a dim fire hearing the keening howls of a proper Victorian-style obstetric horror-labour, brilliantly sound-designed by David Gregory to be not quite human. There’s even the looming presence of an old Aunt Elizabeth in black bombazine in the corner ( Lynette Edwards. and she gets her moment too).
The smalltown muttonheads have decided that Curtis’ weird attitude to the baby is not just because it sabotaged his work, but because it’s not his. He is unaware that they think this, and it feeds a fearful melodramatic showdown after the ultimate disaster. The gulf between Curtis’ enormous – and creditably believable – agonies and desire for a “fine free life” and their smalltown worries is something nobody feels more strongly than him: “Your rabbit-hearted emotions! bread and butter passions!” he shouts.

And it is to the credit of this vigorous production – and the beautifully directed panic of the family – that pig as he is, you rather side with Curtis. Though if there’s an actual hero, it is definitely Martha. A name , I’d suspect, artfully chosen to echo Martyr. Epic stuff. A nugget of theatre history in two sharp, unflagging hours.

Box office 0207 287 2875 to 31 October

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating
rating four

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