Review: Beyond the Horizon, National Theatre

“You and me ain’t like most brothers”

As part of a ‘Young America’ season, Beyond the Horizon, the first play by Eugene O’Neill is being performed in rep with Tennessee William’s second play, Spring Storm at the Cottelsoe at the National Theatre. Originally produced by the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, the two works have been transferred down with their original casts, who play roles in both works, showing the connections between these two American playwrights as they formed their artistic visions.

Set on a rural New England farm, we follow the lives of two brothers Andy and Rob Mayo. Andy has taken on his father’s mantle with a great knack for farming and an understanding of the land whilst Rob is a dreamer with no interest in farming and a hankering for discovering life and the world beyond the horizon. When a declaration of love intervenes with the plans that have been made in order for the brothers to follow their dreams, a chain of decisions is set in motion and the play then traces the consequences of these actions through the ensuing years.

The brothers Andrew and Rob played by Michael Thomson and Michael Malarkey respectively are both extremely good. I particularly enjoyed Thomson’s performance (and not just because of the inordinate amount of eye contact I got whilst he was washing his shirtless torso!), full of affable geniality and it is from him that we get the strongest sense of the unshakeable bond between these two brothers. Malarkey also does well but has a harder role in tracing the journey from carefree dreamy poet to browbeaten hard-done-by farmer, yet maintaining the loving qualities of a husband and father throughout. And as Ruth, the main woman in their lives, Liz White does admirably with what is at times a beast of a character. The fraternal bond shown here is really quite moving portrayed and Ruth’s entanglement with them both adds a real depth, but it is the determination to carry on with life no matter what is thrown at them that drives this play.

With the focus squarely on these three folks, the rest of the company is left with a set of two-dimensional characters: Jacqueline King (always the most under-rated member of the Noble family in Doctor Who in my opinion, overshadowed by Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins) and Joanna Bacon are both great as their matriarchs, Bacon’s god-fearing wheelchair-bound Sarah is a particular joy, but with little stage time, their impact is limited.

Altogether though, I thought this was a very good effort. The simple staging with its stark bare tree at the centre focuses us entirely on the brutality of the events and the far-reaching impact of those ill-advised decisions on all around them. Much darker and bleaker than I had been expecting, one death in particular is heartbreakingly swiftly despatched, but it is none the worse for it.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50

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