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This is Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy: the moment when from his vortex of family addiction, illness, loneliness, romantic seaward longings and deep human empathy came a spurt of hope. It is set in the same East Coast seaside house as his fogbound, bitter autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The title is from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou, beside me singing in the Wilderness–Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” Teenage Richard, aflame with calf-love and rebellion, has the poem by heart. It weaves through the play, together with the lush, lily-scented despairing eroticism of Swinburne and Wilde, references to Ibsen and the daring literary fin-de-siecle spirits of the author’s youth (remember the father’s disgust in the later, harsher play: “Baudelaire, Whitman Poe, Wilde, whoremongers and degenerates!”
For we are in O’Neill’s youth, idealized a decade later in 1933, yearning back to the passion of banned books, a new century’s revolt against the parental rigidities. Wonderfully cunning of the Young Vic and director Natalie Abrahami to have ‘60s Bob Dylan tracks playing as we settle: another age when youth was hopeful and despairing, embracing love and disillusion and rebellion and times a-changing.

Observed by a wandering, curiously ghostlike figure who steps into remembered characters and then watches intently, unseen in the margins , this is a portrait of the family O’Neill should have had. One in which adolescent angst and anger could clash against a partially dysfunctional household and run wild in brief dissipation, but be contained and accepted in final mellow moonlit moments by solid united parents. Martin Marquez and Janie Dee give them that solidity: he a local newspaper proprietor rooted and respected, if testy; she typically strong as Essie, who knows her duty to object to “corrupting” books and behaviour, but is perfectly aware of convention’s unimportance next to keeping the family together.

Sometimes brother Arthur – Ashley Zhangahza – sits at a battered piano and sings the gentle melancholy parlour-songs of a century past, underlining that sense of a safe if stale old world before all this new poetry stirred it up. Not that family life is smooth: Dominic Rowan is Uncle Sid, an amiable (and very funny) habitual drunkard who was once to marry aunt Lily (Susannah Wise) until she demurred at his incurable behaviour. There is real subtle pain here, though delight in the scene, nicely indicated as pretty routine, where Sid demolishes the family dinner.

But young Richard is the focal point, and George Mackay is marvellous: flouncingly adolescent, self-righteously wounded when his chastely hesitant girlfriend Muriel is persuaded to chuck him. He goes on to a low bar, where his first-time drunkenness and squirmingly embarrassed encounter with a predatory tart are quite beautiful in execution. He poses as sophisticated, tries to play cool when Muriel reappears, hurls himself flat on his face in a sea-pool to express thwarted embarrassed adoration. He is glorious.

But what keeps me haunted hours later is Abrahami’s drifting, gentle direction within a wonderful set by Dick Bird. Fresh from its annihilation under the gravel of Happy Days, the Young Vic stage is now under tons of finer sand: sculpted dunes and breakwaters beneath faded seaside clapboard, sands of time in which characters will suddenly burrow to haul out books, a table, a sea-pool reflecting the moon. Memories are as drifting and reshaped as a windblown beach. Charles Balfour’s lighting gives it a Hopper-like beauty of sharp-lit silhouette and shadow, a remembered dream. I can’t get it out of my head.
box office  www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922 to 23 May
rating four     4 Meece Rating


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