02/07/2013 18:12 BST | Updated 29/08/2013 06:12 BST

Review: Strange Interlude: National Theatre, London

4 out of 5 stars

When your mind wanders during a play, that's the giveaway sign that something's gone wrong somewhere. In such situations my thoughts usually turn to crucial subjects such as, "will this finish in time for me to get the last train home?" "Did I really turn my mobile phone off or leave it on silent?" and "I'm hungry; I should've brought a sandwich in with me."

So it's an immense credit to the National's surprisingly engaging production of Strange Interlude that not once during the three hours and thirty minutes that the play lasted did my mind stray from the stage.

The National Theatre is giving its audiences a series of endurance tests at the moment. But, like the four-hour long Othello in the Olivier next door, Strange Interlude never loses that balance between narrative drive and moments of emotional tenderness and turmoil. The result is a completely absorbing production.

Strange Interlude follows the life and loves of Nina, a young women mourning for her love who never returned from the war. Her father, an Ivy League professor, can't empathise with his daughter's heartbreak. But when he dies, though Nina is now free from her father's control, she is also rudderless.

Eugene O' Neill's writing is not easy to deliver. Luckily this was realised by the Director, Simon Godwin, who addressed this head on. Some productions of Strange Interlude have lasted over four and a half hours so the play has been well-edited. Nothing is lost and much is gained by having the play (relatively) snappy.

O'Neill also experimented with soliloquy in this play - not long Shakespearian monologues, more quick asides where the character reveals to the audience what they're really thinking. It's a gamble and in the wrong hands, this could be clumsy. But the cast deliver these well.

In particular, Charles Edwards who plays Charles Marsden deserves praise for this. His character is a constant presence at Nina's side but his love for her seems never to be requited. His asides to the audience bring much humour and affection to scenes which might otherwise be overwrought.

At the heart of the production is a performance of great tenderness and heart from Anne-Marie Duff. Nina is a woman that, on paper at least, is hard to love. Cruel, manipulative and at times, driven mad by her life that she sees as a prison, Nina could easily become haughty and unsympathetic. But in Anne-Marie Duff's hands, Nina has a spirit, a yearning for something wholesome and pure in her life, which keeps you rooting for her, no matter how many terrible decisions she makes.

I was not expecting to enjoy this production, more to endure it. In other hands that might have been the case but one should never underestimate The National Theatre. Its ability to turn out productions of immense craft and guile as a matter of routine is quite extraordinary. Credit to all involved. Well recommended.

Until 1 September

Box office: 020 7452 3000