Long Day's Journey into Night at the Wyndham's: Brian Cox is magnetic in O'Neill for the Succession generation

Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day’s Journey into Night (Johan Persson)
Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day’s Journey into Night (Johan Persson)

It’s typical of the wry, bloody-minded dedication Brian Cox brings to his craft that, at 77, he’s followed the Shakespearean TV role of Logan Roy in Succession with the monolithic family tragedy of 20th century American theatre.

Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play sees actor James Tyrone locked in an implacable knot of addiction, regret and resentment with his wife Mary (the mighty Patricia Clarkson) and sons Jamie and Edmund (Daryl McCormack and Laurie Kynaston).

It's a long and challenging work, the arc of a single day in 1912 condensed into three-plus hours in a dowdy Connecticut living room. The characters flick between hatred and love as they play out intricate variations of old recriminations and rapprochements in the first half.

They get huge, chewy, self-explanatory monologues in the second. Despite minor early line-fluffs from Cox and Clarkson on opening night, Jeremy Herrin’s production is full of pathos and ruined grandeur, with superb performances all round.

Tyrone is an Irish Catholic who dragged himself out of poverty to become a noted Shakesperean, like O’Neill’s father. (I could also draw a parallel with Cox’s path out of Scottish hardship, but he’d probably tell me to f**k off.)

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

Having squandered his talent, though, Tyrone is an angry, drunken has-been: a miser who’ll throw money at worthless property and bar-room flatterers but stint his family.

Wastrel Jamie and consumptive would-be writer Edmund are kept close but pushed away. Both are haunted by a middle brother whose death – along with the loss of her genteel life to the grimy peregrinations of theatre – turned their mother into a morphine-using ghost.

Cox is magnetic as Tyrone, volcanic one moment, maudlin the next. He’s well-matched by Clarkson whose prim body language and sly evasions betray the wariness of the secret addict. Tyrone’s bombastic soliloquies are compelling, Mary’s maundering recollections more than usually bearable.

Kynaston, a former winner of The Evening Standard’s Theatre Award for newcomers, brings great delicacy and watchfulness to Edmund: he also resembles Clarkson in profile. McCormack, so breezy in Bad Sisters and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, brings a malign, defeated charisma to Jamie. Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland turns the caricatured Oirish servant Kathleen into a gust of light relief.

Though the strained bonds of affection are apparent here, Herrin shows us that each of the Tyrones is selfishly feeding an inner demon. Designer Lizzie Clachan emphasises the oppressive, inescapable nature of their tragedy with a cramped box of a set.

Hell is other family members, just as it was for the Roys. I promised myself I wouldn’t make too many comparisons between Cox’s sublime turn in the best TV show in recent years, and his towering performance here. But, you know, f**k it: this is O’Neill for the Succession generation.

Wyndham’s Theatre, to June 8; buy tickets here