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Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Royal Court, London – review round-up

Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly in The Ferryman at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Johan Persson Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly in The Ferryman at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Selling out its Sloane Square run in a day, breaking the Royal Court’s record for fastest-selling production, with a West End transfer already confirmed and on sale, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman was a hit even before it opened.

Directed by stage and screen impresario Sam Mendes, latterly of James Bond fame, and featuring Paddy Considine in his stage debut, Butterworth’s play runs at the Royal Court until late May, takes a month-long break, then pops up at the Gielgud until October at least.

Butterworth’s 2009 epic Jerusalem, thanks in part to Mark Rylance’s award-winning central performance, was a smash hit in London, New York, and then London again a few years ago. He returned to the Royal Court briefly in 2012 with The River, but was then lost for several years to Hollywood, co-writing Mendes’ last Bond film among other things.

Is his playwriting return a cause for celebration, or have his mercurial talents been tainted by Tinseltown? Can Mendes replicate his recent screen success back on the stage? Can Considine’s performance match up to Rylance’s legendary turn in Jerusalem?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

The Ferryman – brilliant Butterworth

Laura Donnelly. Photo: Johan Persson
Laura Donnelly. Photo: Johan Persson

The Ferryman, set in County Armagh during the height of the Troubles, concerns Consadine’s Quinn Carney and his Northern Irish clan of farmers. A long-missing brother, a bereaved sister-in-law and the ghost of Quinn’s IRA past drive the action, which develops entirely in the Carney farmhouse kitchen over three hours of drama.

“Butterworth has done it again,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★), “this time with another rural drama of mighty magnitude set across a single, darkening day.”

And pretty much everyone agrees, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★) finding The Ferryman “a richly abundant and emotionally absorbing play”, Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage★★★★★) calling it “compellingly intricate”, and Aleks Sierz (the Arts Desk, ★★★★) describing it as “a story that heaves with narratives and with incidents, with jokes and with surreal moments”. “You would think it might be something special, and you would be right,” confirms Ann Treneman (the Times★★★★★).

“A ripping thriller in a big family home, stuffed with eccentricity and black comedy, it swells into an expansive examination of Unionist history, politics and identity, as tied up with the IRA,” writes Matt Trueman (Variety), while Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★) simply labels it “a compelling, beautifully textured play” and Ben Brantley (New York Times) admires how it “overflows with storytelling vitality”.

“There are flashes of Martin McDonagh, a blatant Chekhov’s gun, verbatim passages of Virgil and a liberal nod to Of Mice and Men,” lists Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★★★★). “And though these woven strands of family drama, Irish history and intertextuality perhaps dovetail too neatly, it’s impossible not to admire the scale of what the playwright has produced.”

It’s a stunning piece of writing

“There are some similarities here to Butterworth’s last smash hit, Jerusalem, not least a sense of the mystique of rural life,” observes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★).”Yet The Ferryman has its own distinct tang of humour and menace. A feast of intricate storytelling, it’s absorbing, soulful and ultimately shattering.”
“What gives Butterworth’s play such shattering force is its Hardyesque love of rural rituals and its compassionate exploration of unspoken love,” analyses Michael Billington (Guardian★★★★★). “If Butterworth’s engrossing and haunting play tells us anything, it is that the violent past can no more be suppressed than the private passions that we are afraid to articulate.

“It’s a stunning piece of writing,” says Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★), and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★) concurs. For him, it’s “an enormous, shattering eruption of a play”.

The Ferryman – magnificent Mendes

It’s safe to say the Butterworth hasn’t lost it then. But how well is this exquisite new play realised on the Royal Court stage?

“Sam Mendes, returning to stage after helming two James Bond films, directs a production of abundance,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★★). “He knows how to orchestrate large group scenes. There are over 20 characters, a whole troupe of weans, numerous scenes of dancing and brawling, a real live goose and a real live baby.”

Paddy Considine, Sophia Ally, Elise Alexandre and Rob Malone in The Ferryman. Photo: Johan Persson
Paddy Considine, Sophia Ally, Elise Alexandre and Rob Malone in The Ferryman. Photo: Johan Persson

It “exudes the hearthside warmth of a classic, bustling domestic comedy, in which an extended family lives in contented close quarters and everybody chips in to help,” adds Brantley, while Cavendish observes that “at times, it’s as if we’re watching the Armagh equivalent of The Archers”.

“The power of Mendes’s terrific production, which I saw at the final preview, lies in its ability to combine scrupulous naturalism with a sense of the mysterious,” writes Billington, echoing Crompton’s observation that “Mendes’ direction brings poetry to the most immensely detailed naturalism”.

“Mendes orchestrates this domestic epic, on Rob Howell’s set, with enormous clarity and control,” chimes Sierz. “He splashes about it joyous moments and then chills us with apprehension and with foreboding.”

Such praise for Mendes’ direction is matched all round, Taylor admiring its “detailed, humane mastery”, Shenton lauding its “stunning sense of verisimilitude”, and Campbell revelling in its “moments of unabashed warmth and joy”.

The Ferryman – classy Considine and delightful Donnelly

The Ferryman is another brilliant Butterworth play then, magnificently staged by Mendes. Is its cast – totalling 22, including that baby – up to the task?

At the play’s heart is the relationship between Paddy Considine’s Quinn and his sister-in-law Caitlin, played by Laura Donnelly. Around them, there are yarn-spinning old aunts, a lumbering English neighbour, a politically fired-up teenager, and a veritable swarm of clamouring children.

“While there’s no one character here that’s as dominant as Jerusalem’s Rooster Byron, Butterworth has instead loaded his play with close-up studies of the various Carneys and their Corcoran cousins,” explains Tripney, going on to confirm that “the acting is pretty spectacular all round”.

Paddy Considine. Photo: Johan Persson
Paddy Considine. Photo: Johan Persson

Considine is excellent, by all accounts, “holding the stage with a compelling mix of warmth and watchfulness” according to Hemming, displaying “extraordinary stillness and presence” according to Crompton, being “fiercely uncompromising” according to Hitchings and evoking “a powerfully decent man” according to Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★★).

Donnelly is equally good. Crompton writes that she has “a gentle grace that is utterly heartbreaking”, while Taylor finds her performance “extraordinarily moving” and Tripney credits her as the one that “makes the play’s heart beat”. “Donnelly is simply incandescent, carrying the play through its plentiful moments of wounded love and unspeakable grief,” writes Campbell.

Most critics, in fact, have nothing but praise for the ensemble. Billington finds them all “invested with the same intense detail”, Trueman praises how they “breathe vivid life into Butterworth’s eccentrics”, and Shenton simply admires a rack of “richly detailed and finely etched” performances.

And all those kids? “The children are, without exception, the most unaffected and convincing I have ever seen,” extols Crompton.

The Ferryman – is it any good?

When a review is conspicuous for not giving a play five stars, you know said play must be something special. The Ferryman has got full houses from pretty much everyone – The Stage, the Evening Standard, the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, the FT, WhatsOnStage, Time Out, the Independent, and more. Even the New York Times’ Ben Brantley hopped across the pond to see it, and liked what he saw.

It’s confirmed, then: Butterworth’s three-hour Irish epic is a beautifully crafted story of rural Armagh life, shot through with gripping tension and shattering emotion, masterfully directed by Mendes, and stuffed full of superb performances. You’d be a fool to miss it.

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