The El. Train: Three One–Act Plays by Eugene O'Neill
Hoxton Hall, Hoxton St, London, N1 6SH
Booking to December 30, 2013
Ruth Wilson is one of the shining lights of the British stage. A relative newcomer, she has already won two Olivier awards for A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie and her screen career has taken off with a Jane Eyre and Luther, and movies such as Saving Mr Banks and The Lone Ranger.
She alone is reason enough to head east for this production, where Found Productions and director Sam Yates have hit upon a clever concept. Take three early one act plays by Eugene O'Neill and commandeer one of London's most striking performance spaces, a gorgeous renovated Victorian Music Hall in the East End, to stage them. To add to the sense of occasion, devise a Pop Up bar – an update on O'Neill's old Greenwich Village drinking haunt – sprinkle with some great live jazz music (including the velvet voiced Nicola Hughes) to link the three plays and have them play later in the bar and you have fashioned a signature theatrical event. Admittedly the bar, which you enter via a wonderful candlelit antechamber, is more 'vintage' Hoxton than low class dive but if you're in designer clothes, I guess, dives don't really hack it?
But are the plays any good? The answer most definitely is yes. Lost plays usually make this writer shudder as they've often been 'lost' for a reason but here these three thirty minute playlets, all written and set in New York rooming houses of 1913–18, are like a primer in O'Neill. You can already see his growing gift for honing dramatic tension, how he was the master of transforming the vernacular into poetry and his flaming social conscience, bursting with indignation here at the ill treatment of the weak, particularly women.
Before Breakfast is a monologue for a harried and exhausted wife who bemoans her loafer husband (offstage) while she tries to get him out of bed. Wilson is riveting from the outset, her character's rebellion tempered by an underlying fear of the wastrel poet who leaves her to struggle. She's a Lower East Side Juno.
In The Web the tension is ratcheted up further as a consumptive prostitute does battle with her cruel pimp while trying to keep her infant child. Her knight in shining armor turns out to be an African American neighbour, who bursts in to rescue her. Wilson's face is heartbreaking to behold as we watch her over the course of a few minutes experience being thrown a lifeline and the possibility of a new start, only to have it cruelly snatched away again in a tragic and bungled shoot out. Simon Coombs provides stalwart support as the hero on the run.
All three are mini masterpieces in dramatic tension and like a perfect short story they make you long for more. Richard Kent's simple designs, Neil Austin's stunning lighting, and Alex Baranowski's original but period perfect music, brilliantly played by a 6 piece band, combine to make this a totally immersive experience. An admirable labor of love by all concerned.