The Ferryman

Jez Butterworth
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine Credit: Johan Persson
Paddy Considine with Sophia Ally, Elise Alexandre and Rob Malone Credit: Johan Persson
Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly Credit: Johan Persson

The producers showed great confidence by announcing a West End run for The Ferryman long before the play opened to sell-out houses at the Royal Court, where returns queues could soon be stretching around the block.

Their faith is fully justified by a stunning piece that might be even better than Mojo and even Jerusalem, which is really saying something. It also benefits from a rare return to the stage from his burgeoning film career by Sam Mendes, whose direction maintains pace and showcases the talents of an impressive (and impressively large) cast.

Using the Greek myth of Charon, the Ferryman taking the dead across the Styx to the Underworld, and focusing on the unquiet spirits who are denied eternal peace, Jez Butterworth has created an Irish drama that must inevitably be compared to Sean O'Casey's finest depictions of eccentric family life in the shadow of the IRA 75 years before.

Set in rural County Armagh during 1982, as hunger strikers give their lives to the cause, it harks back to the mysterious disappearance of Seamus Carney, whose body has mysteriously appeared in a bog just south of the border 10 years later.

This is the match that lights the blue touch-paper on 3¼ hours of soul searching, leavened by some much-needed dark humour.

The action is set in the farmhouse of Paddy Considine's calm but magisterial Quinn Carney and his eccentric, extended family that is beyond Chekhovian in its breadth and depth.

In addition to the main players, there is a trio of hangers-on, one gaga with occasional lucid moments, another fervently Republican and a third good with a story, respectively played by Brid Brennan, Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer.

At the other end of the scale comes a series of cute kids, ranging from nine months (perfectly behaved on opening night) to late teens, though those tending towards the latter category are less than cute when the whiskey bottle goes around.

In between, there is tension as Quinn's perennially sick wife played by Genevieve O'Reilly struggles to suppress her anger at his barely suppressed love for Laura Donnelly, perfectly mixing innate fire with sadness as her widowed sister-in-law, Caitlyn.

For generations, the family has been intricately bound up with the Republican movement. However, the reappearance of Seamus from beyond the not-grave ramps up the drama. This forces Gerard Horan as the local priest, a weak man who represents the faith that has long given second best to the paramilitaries to become an unwilling go-between.

As such, he is obliged to represent Stuart Graham as Mr Muldoon, an IRA man of the old school, who expects unquestioned discipline and has a couple of hoods to ensure compliance.

Chuck in a series of wild teens and John Hodgkinson playing a gentle giant of an Englishman with learning difficulties and you have the ingredients for what will undoubtedly be, at the very least, one of the best new plays of the year.

By its closure, it has combined elements of Greek tragedy with a shrewd commentary on recent Irish history in the wrapping of a high octane family drama.

Who could ask for anything more?

Following the Royal Court run, The Ferryman transfers to the Gielgud Theatre where it plays from 20 June to 19 May 2018.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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