London, West-End Theatre – The Ferryman:
Writer Jez Butterworth has made a career out of the darker side of Britishness – from 2009’s Royal Court hit ‘Jerusalem’, a coke-fuelled romp through a village fete, to ‘Britannia’ – a new Sky TV show featuring mud-covered Celts chanting and wearing interesting wigs. Throw in a couple of James Bond movies along the way and you get the picture. In Butterworth’s epic new play he has turned his attention to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Directed by Sam Mendes, The Ferryman has recently transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West-End having premiered at the Royal Court and become the fastest-selling show in the theatre’s history.
Set against the political backdrop of the 1981 hunger strikes at the Maze prison, the Carney family are gathered in their farmhouse kitchen busy preparing for an evening of feasting and celebrations following the annual harvest day. But this year, they have an unexpected visitor who sets off a chain of events that uncoil like a spring leading to an unexpected and shocking tragedy.At the centre of the drama is a ménage-à-trois with a powerfully conflicted performance given by Owen McDonnell as farmer Quinn Carney. Torn between his late brother’s wife, played beautifully by Rosalie Craig in a whirl of repressed emotion and household bravura, and his saintly, sickly wife Mary, a finely nuanced characterisation by Catherine McCormack, the domestic and political collide for Quinn Carney with the arrival on his doorstep of the IRA wanting a small favour. With his brother’s body having been found preserved in a peat bog, the IRA chief Muldoon in a chillingly relaxed portrayal by Declan Conlon, presents Quinn with an ultimatum about not talking to the press.The relationships between the bickering family members gradually untangle in a kaleidoscope bluster, blarney and vitriol as some dark truths are revealed interweaving the personal with the political. But alongside the darker themes, the play brims over with the richness, humour, energy and conflict of family life. There is much singing, dancing and storytelling all shot through with the history of the troubles. It is the older family members, Stella McCusker as an ethereal Aunt Maggie Far Away and Mark Lambert as warm-hearted Uncle Pat, who are linked to both the past and visions of the future, trying to make sense of a world which they no longer have any agency.
Recurrent Butterworth themes of magic and myth are present in the play, always shot through with startling naturalism and humour; there’s a real baby, rabbits and a proper wild goose chase! Special mention should go to Justin Edwards as Tom Kettle as a simple-minded but passionate Englishman living on the outskirts of the family. Maybe Butterworth places something of himself in the Kettle character – the outsider looking in.
The cast is consistently fantastic and the direction holds your attention throughout the performance drawing out the sometimes complex narrative threads with care and managing the emotional arc with great skill. The performances from all seven children could show the Von Trapps how it’s done with humour …’there’s only so much whiskey a 13-year-old can drink’ and teenage rebellion reflecting the other drama being played out.
It’s a tricky ask for an Englishman to take on the Troubles but the themes of family, revenge and violence begetting violence that run through the play are universal and Butterworth handles them brilliantly. For a great night out at a London West-End Theatre with stellar performances and a play that will get you thinking you should see The Ferryman. Want to go along? well, you can book tickets here for this and other West-End theatre productions like the ever popular Lion King.
Soho, London W1D 6AR