Sometimes the venue is everything when it comes to theatre. It is hard to imagine watching Eugene O’Neill’s three short plays – that make up The El Train – about life in the Bronx from the comfort of plush velvet seats on Shaftesbury Avenue. Yet sat on rickety wooden seats in the cold, draughty Hoxton Hall, hemmed in by the elbows of your neighbours, and in the heart of what was once the heart of the East End slums, O’Neill’s histrionic melodramas about the perils affecting life among the forgotten beings to make a kind of sense.
The atmospheric surroundings of Hoxton Hall is critical in making the whole concept of The El Train work at all. Outside in Hoxton and around Old Street – Britain’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ – it is difficult to appreciate just what life would have been like for those living in the same streets a century before, and so the location helps to ease the audience back to a time when earnest members of the Fabian society would deliver lectures on a range of esoteric subjects because they truly believed in the moral purpose of education for the bettering of the life of the working man; indeed it comes as little surprise to discover that for over twenty years the venue was run by the Quakers and linked to the temperance movement.
The El Train is a good way of seeing O’Neill writing in the style that would see him win two Pulitzer prizes and become Nobel laureate. A passionate writer that does for the American poor what had previously been highlighted in the U.K through works by George Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens, O’Neill can be exhausting in the long form but in 20 minutes bursts his style can be rather invigorating.
O’Neill tends to be venerated by theatre critics but in his full-length plays he is often to be endured as much as enjoyed. He is as melodramatic as Tennessee Williams but without the entertaining southern gothic that makes Baby Doll and The Glass Menagerie such lurid delights. His plays, like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, mark some of the first developments of the narratives that are now seen as the great American themes and which dominate American drama and literature to the present day. However O’Neill’s work seems to lack the stringent naturalism that propels Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman into the ranks of great drama.
However in the short-form of The El Train one is reminded that there is nothing inherently wrong with melodrama as a dramatic style but it is in the application that it often falls apart. Placed in the hands of strong actors, who commit wholeheartedly to the concept rather than act against it, the moral force of the work begins to shine through. And Ruth Wilson, after her turns in Anna Christie and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse, has proved herself a very fine actor indeed.
Wilson is a magnificent presence in the first piece; a monologue about a frustrated housewife and her alcoholic artistic husband, and which is by some margin the strongest of the three. She captures the very essence of a human teetering on the edge, struggling to free herself from the binds placed on her by both her husband and her own sense of pride.
The real skill of Wilson’s performance is how she understands the limitations of O’Neil’s writing to a modern audience. She doesn’t try to force the language but instead inhabits the whole character; Wilson brings the part alive with a nervous tension that can be read through the way her hands struggle to knot the front of her apron or pick at the wood chipping off the kitchen table. The weight of the burden upon her can be felt through the way that the corner of her mouth begins to pull down as she lists her husband’s various failings, and in the rigidity of her body every time her husband makes noise offstage.
It is an acting masterclass and the following two pieces, whilst having their moments, do struggle to match this virtuosity. Wilson seems rather ill-suited to the next role – as a consumptive prostitute – but it is strengthened through Zubin Varla’s performance as her abusive pimp. It is dialogue that demands to be played in the style of a 1930’s RKO b-movie and Varla takes on the challenge wholeheartedly. He is a swarthy presence, the kind of burly drunken brawler that picks up work on the margins of the criminal underworld and who will never amount to anything more than a long stretch in prison or a bullet in a darkened alleyway.
Sam Yates and Ruth Wilson work hard to generate momentum and fluidity across the three pieces. They work within the evocative surroundings of Hoxton Hall and the inclusion of a singer with live jazz band is an enjoyable addition and helps to capture the feel of the time. A simple, functional set is employed to full effect, with simple lighting and sound effects bringing to life the imagining of urban tenement built around the El Train line.
The title is a nod towards the sense of poetry that O’Neill placed on his own work; the name instantly evoking the squalid underworld of modern industrial America; a vision by Hieronymus Bosch updated for the 20 century and capturing the inevitable pull on migrant communities that are desperately drawn to it like moths to a flame. Yates and Wilson have done a sterling job of bringing alive the surrounding squalor and have transported work that, while showing its age in some areas, still has much to say about the conditions of the day.
The one quibble would be in the pricing that is undeniably steep for such a short off-West End work. Theatre economics may dictate this to an extent but it is still sad to see that in a venue that was traditionally for the working-class of London, and for a set of plays that was to raise awareness of the plight of some of the worst off communities, so few of them are likely to see it.
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