Glass reviews The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre, London

“Vanishing. It’s a powerful word that.”

JEZ Butterworth has fast become one of the most influential and ground-breaking British playwrights of the last 20 years and it’s easy to see why. His commentary on rural life and intricate family relationships is a common theme in much of his work and his latest offering, The Ferryman is the fastest selling play in the Royal Court’s history. Directed by stage and screen heavyweight Sam Mendes, the play already had a great deal of hype to live up to, which it undoubtedly does.

The Ferryman 1The cast of The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

Set in 1981 rural County Armagh, on the brink of the yearly harvest and during the height of The Troubles, The Ferryman revolves around Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) and his family, who discover that ten years since the disappearance of Quinn’s brother, Seamus, that his body has been found in a bog, after years of painful unanswered questions. Since Seamus had disappeared, his wife Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her son Oisin have lived as a part of Quinn’s household with his wife Mary and their seven children.

The Ferryman 3Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

While Quinn and Caitlin deal with the shocking news of the discovery of Seamus’ body, which is broken to them by the family priest and battle with years of repressed emotions, ten men are dying on hunger strike in the Maze prison in a showdown against Margaret Thatcher. Jez Butterworth expertly weaves in the historical context of this fascinating yet traumatic period of history and within the first five minutes of the play, he expertly demonstrates the almighty impact that the IRA had on the lives of so many.

Tom Glynn-Carney (Shane Corcoran)Tom Glynn-Carney as Shane Corcoran in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

This stellar cast of 21 (which doesn’t include the six month old baby, the goose or the rabbit – yes really) is beyond impressive and without one weak link. The Ferryman is Paddy Considine’s stage debut and it is spectacular. Considine’s command of the stage is extraordinary as he paints a painfully honest portrait of a man torn apart by his desire and his morals, whilst being haunted by the darkness and guilt of his past. The enigmatic Laura Donnelly who plays Quinn’s sister in law, Caitlin, complements Considine wonderfully.

Paddy-Considine-Quinn-Carney-and-Genevieve-O’Reilly-Mary-CarneyPaddyConsidine as Quinn Carney and Genevieve O’Reilly as Mary-Carney. Photograph: Johan Persson

Donnelly gives a raw, passionate and abrasive performance. It seems unfair not to acknowledge every single member of this powerful cast as the Carney children are particularly remarkable. Niall Wright and Fra Fee as Quinn’s two oldest sons, JJ and Michael bounce off each other wonderfully and truly come into their own when the three Corcoran boys (cousins of the Carneys) arrive in the second act. Tom Glynn-Carney as the oldest cousin, Shane, is chilling and assertive as he boasts of dangerous tales from the city to his younger, awestruck cousins. Dressed in boot cut jeans and a leather jacket, Glynn-Carney’s clued up swagger of the pop-punk era provides a stark contrast to the rural life of his sheltered cousins.

The Ferryman 6From left: Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney, Dearbhla Molloy as Aunt Patricia Carney
and Genevieve O’Reilly playing Mary Carney in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

Two additional stand-out performances are from the exceptionally talented John Hodgkinson who plays the delightfully awkward and slow Englishman, Tom Kettle and Brid Brennan as Aunt Maggie Faraway. Brennan has the audience on the edge of their seats as she tells the young Carney girls beautiful yet heart-breaking tales of her life as a young girl, madly in love with a man who probably had no idea she existed. Aunt Maggie vanishes in and out of reality, Quinn’s wife Mary frequently vanishes herself from the family dynamic, often stuck down with a mysterious ‘virus’ and Seamus’ vanishing of 10 years hangs over the house like a sickness; vanishing is undoubtedly an overwhelming theme in this piece.

The Ferryman 5Laura-Donnelly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

Set to a backdrop of classic hits like Street Fighting Man and Kids in America and then punctuated by Irish folk songs, The Ferryman is truly magical from start to finish. Three-and-a-half hours absolutely fly by as you are drawn into the lives of the Carney family, wonderfully bought to life by the most intricate and charming set design by Rob Howell where every possible detail is so beautifully thought out.

John-Hodgkinson-Tom-KettleJohn-Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

This may just be the most exciting play of the year and is without doubt imperative viewing. The Ferryman will chew you up and spit you back again, leaving you hungry for more but utterly enchanted by what you have just witnessed. This is an absolute triumph for the exceptionally talented duo of Butterworth and Mendes.

by Heather Doughty

Photography by Johan Persson

The Ferryman is at the Royal Court, London, until May 20 then at the Gielgud Theatre, London, from June 20 to October 7

Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS
Box office: 020 7565 5000