The Ferryman

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London (***/*)

© Johan Persson, Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney and Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney...

© Johan Persson, Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney and Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney…

Already sold out before it had even opened and announced to be transferring to the West End in June, the combination of Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem, Mojo amongst others) and director Sam Mendes seems to have set the public imagination alight.

The curious thing is why Butterworth has chosen to write about the Northern Ireland `troubles’. The past thirty years has seen a plethora of plays on the subject from Brian Friel, Marie Jones to Gary Mitchell with Martin McDonagh as surely the most controversial.

In this post-McDonagh world, Butterworth’s The Ferryman comes a loose second in terms of political bite whilst conjuring one of the most affecting portraits of `family’ in all its brawling, idiosyncratic warmth and tension.

Butterworth, we know, excels in largesse and his portrait of the rural Armagh Catholic farming family – all seven of the children, aunts, uncle and additional `in-laws’ of Caitlin and her son Oisin – spills over with life, banter and above all story-telling.

© Johan Persson, family life at the Carneys in Armah, 1980s with Paddy Considine's Quinn at the centre of it and his wife and mother of seven, Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly)

© Johan Persson, family life at the Carneys in Armah, 1980s with Paddy Considine’s Quinn at the centre of it and his wife and mother of seven, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly)

As Des McAleer’s endearing Virgil reading Uncle Patrick says, what are older ones for but to pass on stories of the past to the we’ens.

The Ferryman is a play of stories and mythology with Brid Brennan’s Far Away Aunt Maggie, a half smile permanently fixed, leading the fray with her summoning of the banshees and of a love never quite requited. Indeed, whilst set at harvest time – a time of feasting and fullness – The Ferryman tells a tale of unrequited love in various forms and the toll it takes on personality.

With its songs and Irish dance, tiny baby, live furry rabbit and grey goose all taking their place on stage, director Sam Mendes leaves no stone unturned in terms of appeal to audience sympathies.

© Johan Persson, Stuart Graham - a classic IRA `hard man'...

© Johan Persson, Stuart Graham – a classic IRA `hard man’…

It’s when Butterworth and Mendes start into the political arena that unfortunately The Ferryman comes unstuck. Butterworth’s IRA `hard man’ Muldoon is a classic stereotype whilst the climactic scene, heavily heralded by Far Away Aunt Maggie predicting she can hear the banshees coming again collapses any real pathos drawn up by Butterworth in a preceding scene where the hearts and souls of Paddy Considine’s head-of-the-family, Quinn Carney, his wife Mary and `live-in’ sister-in-law, Caitlin, are laid bare.

Since the core of The Ferryman is indeed about unquiet souls, the unburied dead and a serious consideration into the effect of Thatcher, Bobby Sands and atrocities committed by the IRA on their own, the lapse into sudden full-on melodrama doesn’t quite cut it, not for this viewer, at least.

Still, for two thirds of its two and three quarter hours (a surprising break from the Court’s usual short, sharp and snappy one hour straight through fare), The Ferryman is a loveably larger-than-life panorama that gives huge enjoyment and which will no doubt please West End audiences as much as it does the Court’s more discerning regulars.

© Johan Persson, John Hodgkinson (English farm hand with the grey goose about to become the harvest feast)

© Johan Persson, John Hodgkinson as English farm hand, Tom Kettle with the grey goose about to become the harvest feast.

Big-hearted and often sucking-in-breath tense, ironically one of its most affecting moments is provided by John Hodgkinson’s slow-minded English farmhand, Tom Kettle, whose declaration of love to Caitln proves a high point.

Flawed but affecting, like Jerusalem, Butterworth has pulled it off again, thanks to Mendes and Rob Howell’s superbly realistic, lived-in farmhouse parlour where all the world’s a stage… 

The Ferryman
By Jez Butterworth 

Lawrence Malone: Turlough Convery
Frank Magennis: Eugene O’Hare
Father Horrigan: Gerard Horan
Muldoon: Stuart Graham
Quinny Carney: Paddy Considine
Caitlin Carney: Laura Donnelly
Mercy Carney: Elise Alexandre, Darcey Conway
Nunu Carney: Angel O’Callaghan, Clara Murphy
Aunt Maggie Far Away: Brid Brennan
Shena Carney: Caria Langley
Uncle Patrick Carney: Des McAleer
JJ Carney: Niall Wright
Honor Carney: Sophia Ally, Grace Docherty
Oisin Carney: Rob Malone
Aunt Patricia Carney: Dearbhla Molloy
Tom Kettle: John Hodgkinson
Michael Carney: Fra Fee
Mary Carney: Genevieve O’Reilly
Shane Corcoran: Tom Glynn-Carney
Diarmaid Corcoran: Conor MacNeill
Declan Corcoran: Michael McCarthy, Xavier Moras Spancer

Director: Sam Mendes
Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Composer & Sound Designer: Nick Powell
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin
Fight Director: Terry King
Dialect Coach: Majella Hurley
Vocal Coach: Barbara Houseman
Associate Director: Tim Hoare
Casting Director: Amy Ball
Children’s Casting Director: Verity Naughton

Associate Designer: Ben Davies
Associate Costume Designer: Lucy Gaiger
Additional Casting (Northern Ireland): Georgia Simpson CDG

Presented by the Royal Court Theatre, Sonia Friedman Productions with Neal Street Productions

World premiere of The Ferryman at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, April 24, 2017.

Runs to May 20, then at the Gielgud Theatre from June 20, 2017

Review published on this website, May 11, 2017