Eugene O’Neill is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century and the first American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But while this trilogy of early one-act plays offers an almost anthropological insight into O’Neill’s recurring themes of disillusionment, alcoholism and despair, they lack the scope and complexity of his later works. As such, this is an endeavour undermined by that old adage of style over substance.
The former music hall at the heart of this Grade II*-listed building has remained largely untouched since it was built in 1863. The El Train sees Hoxton Hall transformed into a New York tenement block in the pre-prohibition era, with exposed brickwork and iron fire escapes nestled beneath the imposing structure of overhead ‘el’ tracks. Stepping off the streets of East London into this atmospheric old building, it is easy to fall immediately in love with this stylishly realised found space venture. The problem is the plays.
The El Train is comprised of three one-act plays: Before Breakfast, The Web and The Dreamy Kid, all set in 1910s New York and intertwined with originally conceived music from a live jazz band, led by vocalist Nicola Hughes. At the centre of it all though is the imperiously talented Ruth Wilson, who appears in the first two plays and makes her directorial début in the third. Having won an Olivier Award for her turn in O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse last year, you sense that Wilson is rather fond of O’Neill. That fondness may well be justified in the case of his later work but here it feels curiously misplaced.
The first two plays are intensely dramatic to the point of almost intolerable melodrama, rarely seen outside of Albert Square. Before Breakfast is a monologue about a woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a failed poet. While Wilson commands the stage with consummate ease as Mrs Rowland, the play is weighed down by encumbering expositional detail.
The second play of the evening, The Web, sees Wilson play Rose, a troubled young mother desperate to escape the thick Manhattan air but unable to raise the money to take her child away with her. As she argues violently with her pimp (Zubin Varla), a neighbour, Tim (Simon Coombs), decides that enough is enough. It’s a densely plotted piece given its short running time and, despite a mesmerising central performance from Wilson, it ultimately feels overwrought.
Thankfully, there is a little more substance to the final play of the evening, The Dreamy Kid, which largely turns its back on melodrama in favour of something more intriguing. As Mammy Saunders (Nicola Hughes) lies on her death bed, her only wish is to see her grandson Dreamy (Simon Coombs), a young man drawn into gang violence and on the run from the law. O’Neill’s premise is more simple here and it allows the story to build to a desolately bleak conclusion.
Under the ‘el’ train tracks, you can’t help but feel that this is an evening designed as a vehicle for Wilson’s undoubted talent. Indeed she has assembled a strong cast, creative team and a fantastically atmospheric venue to boot. But unless you’re an O’Neill devotee, £45 seems a lot to fork out when the plays lack the sophistication of their surroundings.
The El Train is playing at Hoxton Hall until 30 December. For more information and tickets, see the El Train website.