Review: Butterworth's THE FERRYMAN at the Gielgud

Jez Butterworth is probably most famous for the creation of his iconic landmark play Jerusalem, which starred Mark Rylance and ran in the West End and on Broadway a decade ago. Flash forward to 2017 and his latest play, The Ferryman, seems to be having similar levels of record-breaking success. But is this play really worth the hype, or is it completely going over peoples' heads?

For the record, I am a big fan of Butterworth's work on Jerusalem; while I never saw the play for myself as I was hardly even 10 years old when it ran in the West End, I've read the play since and am longing to see this rumoured 10th anniversary revival. However, seeing The Ferryman after having been enveloped in the hype that's surrounded this piece since it was announced for the Royal Court last year, I was completely underwhelmed. And it took me a while to step back from the piece and think: "did I dislike it so much because it was so hyped up?" The plain answer is "no": in actual fact, I just don't think the play is as good as people are making it out to be.

The story of The Ferryman follows a Northern Irish family who are living in the wake of a family tragedy: Quinn Carney's brother has been dead for years, but suddenly, the body has been found. The Carney family - Quinn, his wife Mary, his many children, his aunts and uncles and his sister-in-law Caitlin along with her son - learn the news, learn to process the news and deal with the news over their Harvest dinner through this three-act play. It's a premise that I didn't imagine the play would cover and while it's definitely an interesting one, I didn't ever feel like we were connected enough to a central storyline; it constantly felt as though we were wading through several different unrelated "hay day" anecdotes from the older members of the cast, but we were never really going anywhere in regards to advancing the actual plot. In fact, when I left the theatre and began to really think about it, I didn't feel like the characters had gone very far at all. The writing, for what it is, is superb and cannot be faulted, but it wasn't the huge plot-heavy epic I was expecting from this piece that clocks in at way over three hours in length and is being called "the play of the year".

Uncle Pat tells Honor and Mercy Carney a story in Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman

Sam Mendes's direction is superb though and really cannot be faulted. It's a comment I make regularly about plays that take place in the same room throughout, especially ones that are staged at the Royal Court like this one originally was, but I find that there is a real talent in directing people to make the same space constantly interesting; making people move around the same space for three hours on end without making it look forced or random is a tremendous talent and Mendes definitely has that. I also can imagine that it was no easy feat for him to tackle a cast of this magnitude (a cast of 25 in a play is unheard of) so bravo to him for executing that well, too.

Speaking of the cast, each and every one of them is sublime. Despite it being an ensemble cast, there are - of course - people who take the lead more often than others. Paddy Considine plays Quinn Carney in a performance that is wonderfully subtle and works beautifully in this ensemble family dynamic. His sister-in-law Caitlin, played by Laura Donnelly, was my favourite performance of the show and one that had me belly-laughing at times and wanting to cry at others. I can see an Olivier Award nomination coming her way next year. 

Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney and Genevieve O'Reilly as Mary Carney in The Ferryman

The huge ensemble of adults and children were fantastic as well with personal favourite performances coming from Dearbhla Molloy as Aunt Pat (hilarious), Fra Fee as Michael Carney and Tom Glynn-Carney as Shane Corcoran (both very well considered and levelled dramatic performances of young teenage boys ascending to the top of the family food chain), plus Sophia Ally as Honor Carney (side-splittingly funny one-liners). If there were an Olivier Award for best casting director, they would deserve one (and I'd credit them if they were listed somewhere online!)

Kudos to the fantastic creative team behind this piece, too. Rob Howell turns the stage of the Gielgud into a gorgeous family country home in the heart of Ireland, one that made me want to step right onto that stage and have a dinner sat around that table myself. The vision wouldn't be complete either without Peter Mumford's fantastically atmospheric lighting design, which worked equally well, too.

Quinn Carney talks to his son JJ (Niall Wright) and the rest of the cast of The Ferryman

Do I think that The Ferryman is the "play of the year" as most outlets have been calling it? I wouldn't be so quick to jump on the bandwagon and say so for myself; I feel like Lucy Kirkwood's Mosquitoes at the National, which I'm seeing for myself this time next week, might be just that. But that isn't to say that this epic isn't a risky piece of dramatics that is cast, produced and performed effortlessly well by some of the best talent Britain has to offer. Go and see it while you can and make your mind up for yourself. I myself am already preparing to revisit and give it a second chance.

The Ferryman runs at the West End's Gielgud Theatre through to January 8th, 2018. You can purchase tickets from Delfont Macintosh Theatres' website right here.

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