Fishing For Consonants

The Donmar’s new production of Anna Christie benefits from Jude Law’s muscular energy

Theatre
Unsuitable suitor: Jude Law alongside Ruth Wilson in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" (Johan Persson)

Jude Law is a highly bankable, rather spoilt British screen actor, whose best roles have been in films like The Talented Mr Ripley and Alfie, where he played self-absorbed, preening characters. Funny, that.

You may have gathered that I do not belong to the Jude fan club. Still, he is an unignorable actor. Last time I reviewed him in Hamlet, I had to fight my way through screaming girls in drainpipe jeans tearfully worshipping their overwrought student prince. They’ll have a challenging night out at the Donmar, where Rob Ashford directs Eugene O’Neill’s little-known play Anna Christie, with Jude as Mat Burke, impassioned suitor to Ruth Wilson’s broken but hopeful Anna.

She is a fallen woman who arrives among the longshoremen to search for her errant father, a cheerfully dipsomaniac Swede played with verve, if a dodgy accent, by the stalwart David Hayman. As a sailor in thrall to the “old devil sea” and superstitiously wound up in its myths, he has packed Anna as a girl off to the midwest, where she’s set on the road to prostitution by her abusive host family.

Can the fallen woman be redeemed by belated paternal love and a romance? When the play came to London in 1923 shortly after O’Neill wrote it, the critic James Agate noted wearily that “the theme is an inversion of that old French thing, the repentant courtesan…It comes into 20th-century drama like a tin can kicked down the street by a parcel of vigorous schoolboys.” The question here is how credibly the can is kicked — and after a slow start, the lead duo do so rather well in a play which could easily tip into melodrama. When Burke is rescued from a sea-squall by Chris, Anna’s loquacious father, a battle commences between the possessive old man and the young lover for control of the young woman, who must decide when to come clean about her past life as a member of Mrs Warren’s profession.

The main problem Law has to contend with is that his character is an Irishman most women would sail the seven seas to avoid. By turns overbearing, violent, self-pitying and very drunk, he hardly strikes us as the best male catch, even among the extensive stock of O’Neill’s damaged males. Law just about controls the quirks of language and dialect. He does however over-act with his (admittedly rather fabulous) body. When Burke returns from a bender to confront Anna about her past, Law skips down the barge ladder as nimbly as Nijinsky — unlikely for a sozzled sailor. Rarely a chance is missed to show off his torso or taut gluteus maximus — but then a load of tickets will be sold precisely on that basis. Certainly, Law’s performance can’t be faulted for energy and he is generous to his co-star Ruth Wilson, a relative newcomer to the West End, who shone in Through a Glass Darkly at the Almeida and is a star in the making on stage as well as screen.

Here she inhabits a role played in the film version by Greta Garbo, albeit with the mussed hair of a punkish Debbie Harry and a Viking intensity that is at times as scary as the drunken men’s violence. Anna distrusts kindness and morality as masks for something deeper and loathes men as exploiters, while hankering for love. She and Burke play out their contradictions with a fiery attraction and a lot of slang shouting. It’s lightened by flashes of O’Neill’s acid comedy -like the moment of reconciliation, endangered when the dim Burke remembers that Anna is a Lutheran and wonders if she counts as a Catholic for the purposes of repentance. Anna Christie is a flawed work —  wordy and a bit heavy-handed, but also one creditably enlivened by this star-crossed duo. The designer Paul Wills deploys real ingenuity in making the inside of the tiny Donmar feel like a storm-tossed vessel. We leave them with tensions unresolved, characters tossed between economic necessity, desire and the devils of the deep blue sea.

 Back on land, anyone challenging the sacred memory of Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children has a very tall order. The comedian Marcus Brigstocke in the York Theatre Royal production makes an engaging hand of it, though he plays the part for maximum gruffness, which sacrifices the mixture of Perks’s charm and huffiness.

The wow factor here is the site-specific staging: inside the defunct Eurostar terminal at Waterloo, with the audience sitting on either side of the track, and rude mechanicals shunting large blocks of stage to and fro from below. Satisfying train noises abound and the pièce de résistance is a real steam train which chuffs magisterially along. 

Amy Noble is a lovely, open-faced Roberta, bearing the secrets and misunderstandings of the children on her pinafored shoulders, and Grace Rowe is a winsomely awkward Phyllis. The one grating weakness is that the adaptation tramples roughshod over Edith Nesbit’s linguistic precision. The grand tearjerker, “Daddy, oh my Daddy”, has been colonised for all eternity by Jenny Agutter in the 1970 film, just as firmly as Edith Evans owns Lady Bracknell’s line, “A handbag?” Nonetheless, it is the line to which all of the action, loss and mystery build. Nesbit wrote it thus: “That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.”

If only. The production moves cleverly between the adults’ partial recollection of events and how the children saw it at the time. An over-hurried ending left my small companion wondering how Daddy got out of jail. Fair point: the author never tied up that loose end either. As Mother, Pandora Clifford is the right mixture of comfort and tense anxiety, even if this version does turn her into a bit of a goody-goody Guardianista who doesn’t think there should be any “prisoners and captives” at all. Not even Nesbit’s Fabians would have signed up for that. But The Railway Children retains enough of its blend of goodness and magic to conquer quibbles as we wave them and our younger selves goodbye, with a lump in the throat.