(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/16.)
Ruth Wilson and Sam Yates have joined forces to direct, in a former Victorian music hall, three early Eugene O'Neill plays written between 1913 and 1918. The result is a spellbinding 90-minute evening, in which the occasional crudity of the writing is overcome by fine acting and the atmospheric power of Alex Baranowski's prefatory jazz music and the resonant singing of Nicola Hughes, who sombrely tells us that "death is slow, death is sure".
Death comes relatively swiftly in all three plays – of which the first, Before Breakfast, is easily the best. In this experimental monologue, an aggrieved working wife outlines the misery of her life to her husband, a poetic wastrel, who remains unseen, except for a brief glimpse of an alcoholically trembling hand. Wilson, directed by Yates, is magnificent in her mixture of anger, apprehension, cruelty and concern. You feel you're watching a whole life unravelling. No sooner is this finished than Wilson is back in The Web, playing a tubercular prostitute who has a momentary vision of happiness when she evades her brutal pimp to encounter a good-hearted gangster. Even if the form is melodramatic, you see hints of O'Neill's later belief in an implacable fate, and Wilson is once again breathtakingly good as the cornered heroine.