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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Ferryman
Royal Court Theatre  Spring 2017; Gielgud Theatre Summer 2017

So eagerly anticipated that it sold out the entire run and announced a West End transfer long before its first performance, Jez Butterworth's new play is a political drama whose politics are the least engrossing and exciting part of it. 

Greater even than its tense and well-written plot is the richly textured reality the playwright and director Sam Mendez create for the story to be set in. 

Ireland in the 1980s: a long-retired IRA man is visited by old comrades concerned that some recent events might lead him to re-awaken old grudges. He wants nothing more than to be left alone, but they are hard to convince, and their appearance generates new crises as well as stirring up old issues. 

That's the plot of The Ferryman, and frankly you probably won't particularly care about it, because the play really lies in the world the visitors threaten, the man's large and loving family. 

He lives on a small but profitable family farm with his sickly wife and what seem like a dozen children, not to mention a sister-in-law and her son, and a few assorted nephews here to help with the harvest. 

And then there's the older generation – an uncle who is keeper of the family history and tall tales, an aunt ('Aunt Maggie Far Away') lost in her dementia, and another aunt whose sole delights in life are hating Margaret Thatcher and being nasty to all and sundry.

Oh, and a somewhat dimwitted neighbour whose limitations and eccentricities do not bar him from the family's embrace ('He's not slow as much as unhurried'). 

Almost the entire first hour of Butterworth's three-hour drama is a plotless portrait of the family, with the chaos of a houseful of children tempered by the all-absorbing love everyone feels for everyone else. 

Everybody (except nasty Aunt Pat) is prepared to stop whatever they're doing to listen to one of Uncle Pat's stories for the umpteenth time, and when Aunt Maggie occasionally comes back to the surface from wherever she's been, everyone's joy in the brief gift of the gods is palpable.

Family in-jokes and malice-free ritual teasing abound, and it actually comes as something of an annoyance when the plot insists on pushing the action forward instead of just letting us bask in the onstage warmth. 

The plot is there, and it does raise important questions about divided loyalties and the difficulty of protecting the innocent – particularly impressionable teenagers – from the romanticised allurements of politics and violence. 

There are also some cracks in the idealised portrait of the family we get in that first act, and eventually bad things are going to happen in both the political and personal realms. 

But I really suspect you will forget most of the details of the story long before you lose the lingering memories of that warm, attractive and (perhaps with a bit of wish-fulfilment) totally believable family. 

I will leave it to other critics to praise the leading actors – Paddy Considine as the farmer, Laura Donnelly as the sister-in-law, Stuart Graham as the menacing invader – all of them beyond reproach, because I want to make sure that the second-level actors who do so much to create and sustain the play's reality and tone get their deserved honour. 

Des McAleer as the warm uncle and Derbhla Molloy as the cold aunt not only keep either character from lapsing into caricature, but make us believe in and forgive a decades-long feud. 

John Hodgkinson finds all the sweetness and grit inside the slow-thinking neighbour, and creates one of the play's most affecting scenes when he struggles his way to an open and vulnerable expression of his feelings, while Brid Brennan makes us feel the preciousness of Aunt Maggie's brief forays into lucidity. 

I have in the past had occasion to point out that when everyone in a play is poor it is really all the director's fault. I must now remind myself and you that the converse is also true. 

Acting this uniformly excellent is very much to the credit of Sam Mendes, who may very well be director of the year come awards time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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