THE FIRST MAN
by Eugene O’Neill.
Jermyn Street Theatre 16b Jermyn Street SW1Y 6ST To 31 October 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 3.30pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2875.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 12 October.
Skilfully thoughtful revival of early rarity by a relentless explorer of human nature.
In writing as in personal appearance, neatness seems natural to some. Not a hair out of place, every crease or pleat deep, crisp and even; effortless elegance wearing a debonair smile. For others, whatever the ironing, crimping, brushing and combing, two steps and things are all over the place, effort and rough edges showing through.
Such was Eugene O’Neill, Irish-American bull in the china-shop of the American well-made play. It takes a great deal of relentless integrity, of verbal conviction in his writing to make its aches and bruises not seem self-flagellation or a hitting-out at others with a sounder idea of life. Yet it’s those rough qualities that make his work compulsive, almost despite itself.
Working with a large cast on a small stage, director Anthony Biggs is helped by Tim Dann’s design, surrounding the actors with a hanging cloth rather than solid New England walls, allowing a free transition to the central scene’s archaeological dig, which in 1922 would have allied it with excavations in the Gobi desert, focused on finding an evolutionary link between ape and human.
On Curtis’s return the sizeable family of confident bankers and subservient womenfolk, with their tittle-tattle and suspicions, seems ever-more insignificant. Contrasting all this is a private central conversation in a marriage of true minds, staged with intimacy and played with truthful conviction between Adam Jackson-Smith’s Curtis and Charlotte Asprey as his wife and fellow-discoverer Martha.
Both have lives and minds ranging beyond local society. They’re matched by the frank energy of Alan Turkington as Curtis’s friend Bigelow and the lively modernity of Rebecca Lee’s Lily, a college graduate not yet mentally stifled by family and society. Remarkably, the other person to show eventual independence is old Mrs Davidson, marginalised by the busier family members.
After shameless dollops of exposition, called-up near the end when family members seek to destroy Curtis’s independence at a moment of crisis for him, O’Neill focuses on Curtis and Martha, to whom the family become peripheral. Until, in final silent eloquence, Biggs’ production leaves this family on a stage filled with characters all facing different ways.
Martha: Charlotte Asprey.
Emily: Kate Copeland.
Mrs Davidson: Lynette Edwards.
Mark Sheffield: Richard Emerson.
Richard: Austin Hardiman.
Curtis: Adam Jackson-Smith.
Lily: Rebecca Lee.
Maternity Nurse: Katrina McKeever.
John Jayson: Charlie Roe.
John Jayson Jr: Paul Ryan.
Bigelow: Alan Turkington.
Esther: Claire Wilkie.
Director: Anthony Biggs.
Designer: Tim Dann.
Lighting: Charlie Lucas.
Sound: David Gregory.
Dialect coach: Catherine Weates.
Costume: Gregor Donnelly.
Associate director: Grace Wessels.