The First Man

Eugene O'Neill
Jermyn Street Theatre

Martha (Charlotte Asprey), Curtis (Adam Jackson-Smith) Credit: Polly Hancock
The First Man Cast Credit: Polly Hancock
Bigelow (Alan Turkington) Credit: Polly Hancock

Even before The Iceman Cometh, The First Man made his appearance on earth and, in doing so, became the symbolic central figure in this this forgotten early work from Eugene O'Neill.

While it may be a little flawed, the play richly deserves what is a fine revival under the direction of Anthony Biggs.

Written in 1922, the same year as The Hairy Ape, which is about to get a higher profile production at the Old Vic, this two-hour long drama portrays the dreadful Jayson family—snobbishness personified.

The events take place in the Bridgetown home of one son, Curt, and his loving and lovable wife Martha. Designer Tim Dann presents their house somewhat surreally giving it tent-like walls illuminated by prehistoric cave paintings.

The couple have endured more than their fair share of life's disappointments in reaching their late 30s.

A decade before we meet the groundbreaking anthropologist and his dedicated helpmate, they lost a pair of infant daughters in tragic circumstances, which do indeed hark back to the ice age.

Deep love for each other, combined with hard work and a decision to steer clear of any children to replace those lost, make their lives bearable, although there are inevitably dominated by denial.

The pressures are helped since both feel deep affection for Curt's best friend, "Big" Bigelow, Alan Turkington playing a former womaniser turned into a model father of three by the death of his wife.

In a town full of bigots such as Bridgetown, friendship between a man and his friend's wife can only have one source and the mean-minded Jaysons are in no doubt about the scandal that they are about to face.

Led by a pair of ugly sisters (in their souls), who would not be out of place in a pantomime, they launch a whispering campaign that is only exacerbated after the interval when Charlotte Asprey as Martha announces that she is to bear the family's first grandson and putative heir.

The prospect of motherhood delights Martha but drives Curt into regression so that, surely deliberately, Adam Jackson-Smith giving an unforgettable performance takes on the movements of one of the Neanderthal apes that has made him famous.

The fundamental, fiery debate that develops balances Curt's career and aspirations against the prospect of bringing a new life into the world, thus giving Martha purpose on her own account, rather than as a support to his ambitions.

His anger is multiplied once the baby son duly appears, sanity only returning after cruel shock treatment meted out by one of those catty sisters-in-law.

The pick of the acting beyond that of the two leads comes from Rebecca Lee playing Curt's sister Lily delivering a delicious comic turn in the guise of a spinster who derives pleasure from sharing sarcasm of the highest order.

While some of the plotting is rather more contrived than the best that Eugene O’Neill has to offer, The First Man is a gripping and at times gut-wrenching drama that unerringly points the finger at the hypocrisy of the well-to-do, even in the supposedly classless American Society of the 1920s.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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