The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill

Southwark Playhouse

From 16 May 2012 to 09 June 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

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Kate Budgen is a director who is going places. Again and again in a long traverse, the visual and aural presentation of Eugene O'Neill's gritty drama surprises, though occasionally, one can get the impression that this young director gets intoxicated by her own virtuosity.

The opportunities to shine abound in an episodic play that changes scene and tempo constantly through little more than 90 minutes in this version.

The opening scene of stokers in the bowels of a ship is lifted straight from Steven Berkoff with song, declamation and lots of freeze framing.

This is visualised in semi-darkness to contrast with the bright lights on deck where Emma King and Lizzie Roper playing Mildred and her Aunt and looking respectively like Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Parker, have an age-old debate across the generations.

Mildred, whose steel magnate Daddy owns the line, decides to descend into the hellish world of the stokers looking for thrills and in doing so turns the head of suitably simian Yank, instantly turning him into The Hairy Ape of the title.

For the rest of the evening, we follow him through a series of attempts to dispel the terrors of unrequitable love.

Bill Ward's muscular Yank trips up Fifth Avenue with his Communist pal Long, played by Mark Weinman, before enduring spells in prison, with the anarchist IWW (International Workers of the World) and the zoo.

During this journey, he approaches madness rather like another O'Neill anti-hero whose equilibrium is destroyed, The Emperor Jones, achieving inner peace but only at a terrible cost.

While the acting is of variable quality and favours volume over subtlety, this evening is made by the director's vision and adventure. She is aided tremendously in this by lighting, courtesy of Richard Howell and a soundscape from Tom Gibbons.

Eugene O'Neill really seems to be in fashion at the moment and this is a valuable opportunity for Londoners to see a lesser-known work by the man who is currently dazzling visitors to the Old Vic with Anthony Page's star-studded revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night.