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That was September in London theatre land with added mobile phone disturbances and actor drop outs

Review: Hidden passions and audience reactions in Desire Under the Elms, Sheffield Crucible

Casting-Announced-for-Desire-Under-The-ElmsThere was one of those audible audience reaction moments during Desire Under The Elms. I'm not talking about laughter, I'm talking about a sharp intake of breath, even a few 'oh's' around the auditorium.

I haven't seen many Eugene O'Neill plays but all those I've seen seem to expose the pure, often blind, power of certain human emotions. He pops the lid of the shaken soda bottle and Desire Under The Elms is no exception as the audience response demonstrates.

It's a farm setting, mud stage with wheat crop at the back, a water pump, pieces of farm equipments and then at various points pieces of furniture - a table, a bed etc are brought on.  Eben (Michael Shea) and his older half brothers have been left to work their father Ephraim's (Matthew Kelly) farm as he has disappeared. There is no love lost between the siblings and also with their father. The older brothers want to leave, head west to the gold fields to make their fortune while Eben wants to take control of the farm believing it is rightly his as it belonged to his late mother.

We hear a lot about Ephraim  from the brothers and it heightens the expectation of his inevitable arrival. When he does arrive he has a new young wife Abbie (Aoife Duffin) in tow. He walks slowly with a slight stoop, looks frail but he is anything but. He soon puts Eben in his place, the animosity towards him from his children is well deserved, this is not a loving father rather one that would rather burn the farm to the ground than leave it to his wastrel sons.

At first Eben is put out by Abbie, threatened by what she represents and determined not to get on with her despite obviously feeling the contrary. But she gradually breaks his resolve, gets him to admit his feelings and soon they are having a passionate affair behind Ephraim's back. When Abbie gets pregnant both men believe they are the father and the stakes are raised. Given Eugene O'Neill's back catalogue you know this isn't going to end happily, the sharp intake of breath from the audience is a hint of that.

While this does start slowly once it finds its feet it is gripping, atmospheric and intense. Matthew Kelly may be a shoe-in for playing Santa this Christmas with his white beard and hair but he is definitely more grizzly bear with a sore head than grizzled and has a formidable stage presence. Michael Shea occasionally reminded me of a young Ben Whishaw. He mixes the grief Eben still feels for the loss of his mother with an awkward, barely contained anger and passion.

Desire Under The Elms is at The Crucible in Sheffield until 14 October and is well worth a look. It's two hours and 20 minutes including and interval and I'm giving it four stars.