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The First Man by Eugene O’Neill – Review

The First ManThe UK Premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s The First Man, showing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and directed by the venue’s Artistic Director Anthony Biggs, is a curious little tale about what it means to be human, and the intricate balance between looking back at the history of humankind, and looking forward to the creation of one’s own legacy over a lifetime.

The story concerns Curt, an archaeologist who, on his wife Martha’s 39th birthday, learns that they are expecting a baby. This news is not welcome, given that the couple lost two children 15 years ago, and vowed never to have another child as a result. Moreover, a new baby now poses an insurmountable obstacle to Curt’s upcoming 5-year long expedition to China, with Martha in tow acting as secretary, to search for ‘the missing link’. With Curt’s snooty family obsessively griping over Martha’s (overfamiliar?) friendship with Curt’s best friend Bigelow, and the threat this poses to their good name and social standing (people talk, after all), both Martha and Curt descend into a pit of despair as their wants and needs are pitched not only against one another, but against ‘propriety’, as represented by this small-town family in Bridgetown, Connecticut.

A strong cast leads this play, which requires delicacy of touch to ensure that some, often unlikable, characters do not descend into caricatures. The women in particular shine, with Rebecca Lee bringing much light relief as Lily, a young woman railing against her inevitable fate as a gossiping, scandal-mongering lady-about-Bridgetown, and Charlotte Asprey perfectly conveying Martha’s sense of her own mortality as she approaches 40, and her struggle to quell her mounting desire for a child.

There is ample scope for comedy within the play, yet at its heart is a forlorn, yet strangely relevant message: one cannot escape the wagging tongues of others, and relationships require compromise and honesty. Whilst The First Man could do with a bit of work (some of the script is rather clunky and expositional), and O’Neill himself was unhappy with his work, choosing instead to focus on The Hairy Ape, his subsequent smash-hit, there is much to enjoy in the intricacies of the arguments within and between each character, depicting perfectly the small-town narrow-mindedness that was prevalent in the 1920s. This production lends weight to O’Neill’s words, and, with an atmospheric score and a set that could depict an archaeologist’s tent, a Neanderthal cave painting, or a basic front room in a Western film, gives much food for thought on both the origin, meaning, and purpose of life.

4 stars

Review by Amy Stow

Jermyn Street Theatre tfm presents The UK Premiere of THE FIRST MAN By Eugene O’ Neill
Directed by Anthony Biggs
Designed by Tim Dann
Lighting by Charlie Lucas

A highly autobiographical work, this is a tale of male pride, family jealousy and maternal longing from one of America’s greatest playwrights.

Following the tragic death of their two young daughters, Martha and Curtis Jayson have made a pact to never have any more children. For ten years they have thrown themselves into anthropological field trips around the world, but having finally returned home to Connecticut, they find themselves suffocated by provincial life and the small-town nature of the Jayson family.

On the eve of Martha’s 39th birthday, as she longs for another child, Curtis plans to embark on their most ambitious expedition yet: an arduous five year mission to Outer Mongolia: to search for the origin of man known as ‘The Missing Link’.

CAST:
Charlotte Asprey, Kate Copeland, Lynette Edwards, Richard Emerson, Austin Hardiman, Adam Jackson-Smith, Rebecca Lee, Charlie Roe, Paul Ryan, Alan Turkington and Clare Wilkie

On 20 October at 7 pm, Director Anthony Biggs and assistant director Grace Wessels will introduce and answer questions about The First Man.
The Q&A will be hosted by Dr. Cindy Lawford.

Tuesday, 6th – Saturday, 31st October, 2015
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm. Saturday matinees 3.30pm
http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

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