Beyond the Horizon
Royal & Derngate Northampton production
RNT Cottesloe Theatre
Whatever Irish county he names them for, Eugene O'Neill's family have a smack of authenticity. In Beyond the Horizon they are the Mayos rather than the Tyrones but otherwise these are the same unforgettable characters, minus the alcoholic excess.
The National seems unable to put a foot wrong at the moment, after London Assurance and The White Guard but even so, a pair of largely unknown imported plays from the Royal and Derngate in Northampton (with Tennessee Williams' Spring Storm) must have seemed a big risk.
In fact, helped by a universally good cast, their Artistic Director Laurie Sansom has already garnered lavish praise for the duo first time around and it is easy to see why.
In his first full length play written as far back as 1918, O'Neill focuses on a pair of brothers, Rob and Andy, who swap destinies in an instant and live to regret it for life.
Michael Thomson's Andy is a farmer through and through, expected to marry the next door neighbour Ruth, played by Liz White.
The dark, handsome Rob, played with great feeling by Michael Malarkey, is an idealistic, dreamy college graduate. As the play opens on to a barren tree and one of the design team's (Sara Perks - Set, Chris Davey - Lighting) gorgeous horizons, he is about to join their Uncle Dick on the high seas, taking a voyage where the discoveries are as likely to be about himself as the world.
However, in a momentous transformation, Rob and Ruth get together, while the disappointed Andy heads for the ocean in his brother's place.
O'Neill is as good at drawing the minor figures as the three leads. The parents, played by James Jordan and Jacqueline King, could have come straight from A Long Day's Journey into Night and are as irascible and argumentative as their sons are harmonious.
Robin Bowerman as Dick is a classic, grumpy sea dog, never at home on dry land, while Joanna Bacon, playing Ruth's wheelchair-bound mother, is equally sour, though with a little more reason.
The main interest though lies in the experiences of the younger folk, whom we meet again three years on, with father gone and the farm failing disastrously in the hands of Rob, clearly unsuited to the job as Ruth and her mother make abundantly clear. His one happiness is a beautiful tiny daughter, played with great charm on opening afternoon by Kira Caple
In the final act of a play that lasts a little over 2½ hours, we discover that the family has largely been taken away by fate through the ensuing five years, with more tragedy on, rather than beyond, the horizon.
This play is far too good a piece of writing by a great playwright to have disappeared from view. Therefore, Nicholas Hytner at the National, and, above all, Laurie Sansom in Northampton are to be thanked for reviving it.
John Johnson reviewed this production in Northampton