London Theatre Review – The Ferryman

After you have attended live theatre more than a couple times, you easily remember your best experience. After seeing dozens of productions over the years, it can become a bit murky to choose your favorite.

After seeing The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre, I no longer face that conundrum. I have not been so spellbound in the theatre for as long as I can recall. Even more amazingly, the play lasts nearly three hours. There are very powerful plays that zing by in one act, in a third of the time. The Ferryman instead unfolds slowly yet compellingly.

This play is magnificent, and delivers everything one hopes for in live theatre.

It opens with a couple in a late night foggy debate about which band they’d toss out of a lifeboat due to space constraints – The Beatles, The Stones or Led Zeppelin. The late night becomes the early morning, and slowly the house awakes. Parents, children, friends and other relations soon pass through the North Irish country kitchen.

Each arrival adds to the tapestry being woven in this home. The characters are well-defined and endlessly fascinating.

Playwright Jez Butterworth knows intimately the story underlying the script, and he delivers razor sharp dialogue. Set in 1981, the Troubles cannot be escaped. Director Sam Mendes has created a memorable production, evincing his versatility. After reaching major attention with his 1999 film debut American Beauty, he went on to tackle James Bond successfully in Skyfall and Spectre. He is currently in discussions to direct the live-action version of Disney’s Pinocchio. But those four films in no way represent the versatility the Cambridge-educated Mendes shows at the helm of The Ferryman.

Moving the characters through the house and keeping the thickening plot coherent is no mean feat. But with the aid of a superb cast, the production is riveting.

The annual bringing in of the harvest has the Carney house buzzing with anticipation, but activities from the past cast a long shadow. Secrets are revealed, bonds are tested.

The head of the household, holding together the pieces of the puzzle, is Quinn Carney, played by Paddy Considine. Considine is remarkable, he deals with a kaleidoscope of characters ranging from his infant child to a full retinue of children to grandparents to coldly menacing visitors. His main foils are his wife Mary (the smoldering Genevieve O’Reilly) and and sister-in-law Caitlin (the sterling Laura Donnelly). The familial interplay is at times hilarious and harrowing, but always real.

The Royal Court Theatre has built an amazing reputation for launching outsanding productions. The Ferryman further burnishes the reputation. The play transferred to the West End yesterday, and it will undoubtedly be a hot ticket.

(photos by Johan Persson)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.