The last show I attended in 2013 was The El. Train - three one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill put together for the first time in a single production. The venue was the Victorian grade II listed Hoxton Hall which had been transformed into 1920s New York with a “Hell Hole” saloon bar serving up period-inspired cocktails and blaring out melancholic jazz. The theatre itself was turned into a cramped dark tenement block with the piercing sound of a railway train racing overhead followed by live music and the heart-rending vocals of Nicola Hughes.
The first two plays, Before Breakfast and The Web, were directed by Sam Yates with Ruth Wilson as the female leads. Before Breakfast sees Wilson’s embittered Mrs Rowland getting ready for work while talking to her silent husband Alfred of whom one could vaguely make out a silhouette in the curtained off bedroom. As the play progresses, anger rises and falls in Wilson’s east coast drawl which also sounds exhausted by everything. Increasingly more is revealed about Mrs Rowland’s view of the unhappy marriage - particularly Alfred being an unemployed academic spending time drinking and womanising while she works in a factory and betrays an intellectual inferiority complex. The only sound that comes from Alfred is the drop of his shaving bowl after committing suicide - the bloody aftermath of which is only visible to his wife. Wilson’s face of terror and disbelief sets the tone for the rest of the production.
The Web plunges further into woeful darkness with consumption-riddled prostitute Rose battling it out with Zubin Varla’s pimp as she tries in vain to stand up for herself and her baby. As violence escalates, neighbour Tim (Simon Coombs) bursts in with a gun and saves Rose. Tim turns out to be a bank robber hiding from the police. After much comfort and reassurance, Tim eventually convinces Rose that she can escape from her dead-end situation, move away and improve her health. Of course, being an O’Neill play, the characters’ fates unfairly end in a fatal shooting and an arrest. The chemistry between Wilson and Coombs is tender and passionate as they play two desperate individuals who have (very brief) solace and hope together before being thrown back into inescapable wretchedness.
Third and final play The Dreamy Kid gave Ruth Watson her directorial debut. Dying Mammy Saunders (Nicola Hughes) hopefully waits for her beloved grandson Dreamy (Coombs) to be at her bedside seemingly unaware that he is a gangster and a wanted man for murder. Hughes, who sang between plays, completely transforms from glamorous club singer to frail elderly woman clinging dearly onto her final wish. Coombs’ Dreamy initially frightens and intimidates with a particular type of hardness of someone who had fallen deep into the wrong crowd. Dreamy’s active reluctance to stay in the apartment gives way to family duty and superstition. As the play finishes with Dreamy and Mammy together and both awaiting their deaths (one of age and the other most likely a criminal sentence), the fear of the unknown portrayed by Hughes and Coombs is overwhelming and builds up in time to the screeching train above.
This triple bill had plenty of emotional rawness which, with good timing, was restrained before delivering yet another shattering blow. I came out of Hoxton Hall feeling that Eugene O’Neill made Strindberg (a major influence) and Ibsen look like Restoration Comedy playwrights. Richard Kent’s designs contributed greatly to the dark and claustrophobic feel of time and place settings. Yet with Alex Baranowski’s original music there was also an underlying decadence which was a key characteristic of the 1920’s before Depression struck. A powerful and sobering production which got many audience members back into the Hell Hole Saloon afterwards for a much needed stiff drink.