Review – The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, 28th December 2017

The FerrymanThe third of our theatrical treats between Christmas and the New Year was this extraordinary production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which had transferred from the Royal Court earlier in the year for a limited period. Such is the demand for seats that the production has already been extended twice. If you go to see this hoping to discover exactly why you shouldn’t pay the ferryman until he gets Chris de Burgh to the other side, you might be sadly disappointed. What you will get, however, is a sizzling and thrilling story set in Northern Ireland in 1981 that shows how the sectarian divide affected one particular extended family.

Aunt Maggie with the kidsNine years before, Seamus Carney went missing, leaving behind his wife Caitlin and three-year-old son Oisin. Word was that he had got on a ferry to Liverpool, but had never kept in contact with his family. The wife and son moved in with Seamus’ brother Quinn and his wife Mary, who lived in a farm in County Armagh with their several children, aged relatives, and miscellaneous livestock. Whilst they never forgot their missing husband and father, they did their best to get on with their lives. Until one day, local priest Father Horrigan is mysteriously called to Derry where he discovers that a body has been found… He knows it is undeniably Seamus but why did he meet his death, and who is this mysterious Mr Muldoon who gains both fear and respect in equal measure? The play sets itself up to be a full-throttle thriller, part whodunit, part whydunit; however, when Father Horrigan returns to Armagh to break the news to the Carney family we realise the significance of the death will be much greater than first thought.

Father HorriganJez Butterworth has created a stunningly written play about a complex family environment which Sam Mendes’ production brings to life with more depth and insight than you could imagine. The huge farmhouse kitchen extends deep into the back of the Gielgud stage; the tall, steep staircase from above disgorges more family members than you could predict down to the big table that is the focal point for the family’s activities. In one corner sits an old aunt, most of the time her mind locked in a dementia-filled prison, occasionally returning to life to amuse the children with stories of old. Opposite her sits another aunt, chain-smoking, her attention captured by the radio news and the speech of Prime Minister Thatcher talking about the IRA hunger strikers. Between them the stage is filled with children of all ages, both Carneys and their cousins the Corcorans, some of them idealists, some realists, but none of them without an opinion. Neighbour Tom Kettle drops by with apples for the children, and maybe a rabbit in his deep pockets; a simple soul but with the strength of two men, as becomes apparent as the story develops. There’s always so much going on for the audience to observe that the play constantly keeps you on your toes, despite its long length of three hours and ten minutes – at least. All human life is there, as the News of the World once boasted.

Quinn and MuldoonIf you remember the Northern Ireland troubles, as they are euphemistically referred to, that period of total distrust and thinly veiled enmity which we hope and pray will never return, you’ll probably have a sense of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. This play will challenge those preconceptions, and make you reappraise both sides of the gulf. Few of us are all good or all bad. And who knows what someone is capable of if their homeland, or their family, or anything they hold dear are directly threatened. The play has a surprise, shocking ending that I certainly could not see coming and you’ll be applauding the curtain call with your heart in your mouth.

Sarah Greene and Will HoustonThe performance we saw, gentle reader, which was the matinee on Thursday 28th December, had a drama all of its own. On arrival we were informed that there would be two cast changes, and that chain-smoking, IRA supporting Aunt Pat would be played by Mary Keegan and that Seamus’ son Oisin would be played by Conor Gormally. All well and good, and I thought Ms Keegan in particular was stonkingly effeective as the difficult old cow, picking fights with anyone who’ll stop still, insinuating scandal and discontent within the household – a memorable and powerful performance. Then came the interval, which was scheduled for fifteen minutes. After about twenty-seven minutes, the stage manager appeared and apologised for the delay but explained that Will Houston, who was playing Quinn Carney, had been taken ill and his role would be continued by Dean Ashton. I thought Mr Houston was giving a tremendous performance as Quinn, a superb portrayal of a man who has to wear many hats – father, husband, brother in law; provider, stabiliser, role model. So I was very surprised to see that he couldn’t continue. It must be very difficult to come on during a show and assume a role that the audience has already attributed to a different actor, but Mr Ashton did a grand job, although I felt his characterisation of Quinn was a little more reserved than Mr Houston’s.

Shane CorcoranThen there was what the programme describes as a “brief pause” between the second and third act, with the ushers asking us to stay in our seats as it was only about a two-minute break. After about ten minutes, the stage manager reappeared, like a valued old friend popping in to see if we were doing alright. Apologies again, but this time one of the child actors had been taken ill, so Master Thomas Harrison, who had been playing Declan Corcoran, would be replaced by Master Jack Nuttall and he was quickly getting his costume on. What on earth was going on back there? They were dropping like flies. Young Mr Nuttall was superb by the way; he had a number of quite complex – and comic – speeches early in the third act and he carried it all off brilliantly. But never before had a cast looked quite so relieved at curtain call to have actually made it to the end, nor had an audience been so grateful for the presence of the safety curtain to keep whatever lurgy was running riot away from us!

Uncle Pat in chargeThe production was notable for some other excellent performances; Sarah Greene was superb as the widowed Caitlin, enjoying what comfort she could from her close relationship with her brother in law, feisty when defending herself but dignified when she knows she cannot beat the system. Charles Dale was also excellent as Father Horrigan, desperately trying to provide as much support as he can whilst knowing that he too is beaten and could easily make things worse. Laurie Davidson gives a great performance as the progressively drunk and indiscreet Shane Corcoran, and Ivan Kaye is a disarmingly kind Tom Kettle, his seething pile of emotions never too far from the surface. There’s also a terrific performance from Stuart Graham as the quietly calculating and intimidating Muldoon. But this is a true ensemble piece, and the understanding between all the cast members, young and old, is a total joy to watch. I can’t recommend it too highly. As of today, 8th January 2018, a brand new cast is taking over until May.

P. S. When it comes to this year’s theatrical awards, this production is a shoe-in for Best Fowl in a Supporting Role.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Woyzeck, Old Vic, 10th June 2017

WoyzeckOf course I knew the play Woyzeck, doesn’t everybody? Famously a fragment left behind by George Büchner on his untimely death at the age of 23 in 1837. Adaptors over the years have made it their own by piecing the remaining bits together and adding an ending to suit their own tastes. The opera by Alban Berg. The film by Werner Herzog. And now Jack Thorne’s dramatic adaptation for the Old Vic… I’m not convincing you, am I? I confess that of course I’d heard of Woyzeck, but that was about the extent of it.

woyzeck and marieThis Woyzeck is a soldier in Berlin in the early 1980s, packed off after an inauspicious spell in Northern Ireland, taking with him his Irish girlfriend Marie and their baby, living in stinking rooms above a butcher’s shop rather in married quarters – they’re not married. His loyal colleague from Northern Ireland, Andrews, is still by his side, screwing everyone he comes into contact with so long as a) they’re female and b) they’re alive. Woyzeck is in desperate need for extra cash so acts as hairdresser/masseur (maybe more?) to Captain Thompson, and subjects himself to medical trials with the creepy Doctor Martens. Woyzeck has PTSD from his Northern Ireland stint but are the medical trials making him worse? And will his relationship with Marie survive his outbursts of fury and violence?

Woyzeck and CaptainTom Scutt’s design, which mainly consists of large walls descending from the flies, dominates the stage; and whilst these walls have considerable impact by their own appearance, they detract from the acting space. As a result, the Old Vic’s huge stage is only rarely called upon to contribute; the majority of the scenes take place, cramped, in between or in front of the walls. You may wish to attribute great symbolism to these walls – do they represent military barricades? Are they walls within Woyzeck’s mind? and so on. As Woyzeck begins to fall apart, so do these walls; gashes in their soft surfaces revealing bloody globules of angry brain. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted them.

Marie and WoyzeckIt is, I think it’s fair to say, a dark play. Apart from Andrews, there’s no one particularly happy with their lot. Woyzeck’s initial optimism falls away as the play develops; Marie’s confidence in Woyzeck steadily declines; Woyzeck fails to adhere to the strict rules of the medical trial, much to the doctor’s fury. Relationships are strained; security is threatened. There’s no obvious rescue position at the end of the play that looks to the future; no Fortinbras coming in to save us all. No matter how much you might enjoy the performances, at the end of the play you feel as though you’ve had a thoroughly hard time and you’ll need to rush outside and get some fresh air.

Andrews and MaggieJohn Boyega plays Woyzeck; you, gentle reader, of course know who he is, but I didn’t have a clue as I don’t watch Star Wars. He cuts an impressive figure and is very convincing as a tormented brain, which is largely what he has to portray after the interval. I liked his light-hearted but sexually charged banter with Marie, and his scenes with Andrews, although I found his interaction with the other characters slightly less convincing. Sarah Greene is superb as Marie, spirited in her dealings with Woyzeck, a little reserved and somewhat humiliated with other characters. However, the two of them together created an unlikely partnership for the times and in many ways, it wasn’t entirely believable. Ben Batt and Nancy Carroll steal the show; he as the irrepressible and ever perky Andrews, and she as the flirtatious and snobby Maggie, inquiring after the collection boxes she has entrusted to the embarrassed Marie whilst Andrews finishes off pounding her from behind. Marvellously confident performances both.

WoyzeckFor me this was a distinct curate’s egg of a production. Despite some good individual performances, some scenes did not gel and the descent into madness at the end wasn’t so much emotionally exhausting as straightforward tiring. There’s no doubt the play amply portrays the horror that can overtake a soldier; but I also felt a little injection of subtlety could have invested it with much more power, resulting in its offering much more entertainment. It’s on until 24th June.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre, 3rd August 2013

The Cripple of InishmaanIt’s back to the Noel Coward Theatre for the third play in the Michael Grandage season, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. We’d not seen anything by Mr McDonagh before, and I think I was expecting something rather dour and dismal, a tale of Old Aran out of J M Synge; Riders to the Sea meets Brian Friel, that kind of thing. What I wasn’t expecting was to be in convulsions of laughter before the first minute was out.

Christopher Oram’s set is suitably sparse and gives a credible impression of the cold poverty and drabness of the Isles of Aran in 1934. The grocers shop that has everything you need provided it’s peas or unpopular sweets, the shore with the fishing boat, the featureless bedrooms and the makeshift cinema with a sheet for a screen are all quietly impressive, help the story move forward and provide a sense of intimacy.

Daniel RadcliffeThese Michael Grandage productions are promoted as star vehicles – Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith, Jude Law; and for this production, Daniel Radcliffe. There’s obviously a huge temptation for members of the audience to take sneaky pictures of the stars, which of course as we all know is Strictly Forbidden. To emphasise the fact, as the curtain was about to rise, two of the ushers stood at the front of the stage and held up little laminated sheets with a picture of a camera crossed out and the words “no photos”. They held them there, defiantly, in silence, for what seemed an age. In an act of civil disobedience, the lady behind me said to her companion, “go on, take a picture of them”. Spelling the message out in this rather laborious and atmosphere-killing way looked terribly out of place. Presumably it’s ok to take a picture with a phone, as mobiles weren’t crossed out on the laminate.

Ingrid Craigie & Gillian HannaOnto the production. I’m not going to outline the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a constantly surprising and delightfully honest development of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the work of Martin McDonagh and it’s a thrill to find out that this play is so exquisitely written. It’s full of subject material that is really located where angels fear to tread but McDonagh’s lightness of touch and incredible ear for the Irish lilt of language makes humour possible in the darkest areas. It’s a gift not dissimilar to Ayckbourn’s, to make you laugh at something savage; the Aran Islands in 1934 were obviously not the most “politically correct” of places, and there is a lot of poking fun and discrimination against “Cripple Billy”. Mind you, all the characters seem to poke fun at and discriminate against everyone, so to an extent Billy is no different from anyone else.

Pat ShorttIt’s also a very exciting and entertaining story with at least two coups de theatre. Just when you think it might become mawkishly sentimental McDonagh surprises you with an amazingly powerful twist. Inishmaan is not a sentimental place. It’s home to serial bullying, disrespectful behaviour and physical violence, so it is. Life is tough, when the threat of TB or a liver eroded by drink is never far away, so it is no surprise that the glamour of Hollywood might become just too tempting a prospect.

Sarah GreeneAnd of course this production is full of great performances. We saw Daniel Radcliffe a few years ago when he was in Equus and there is no doubting his extraordinary stage presence. As Billy he gives a superb performance of a young man with cerebral palsy, but a huge determination to make the best of his life against the odds. Technically his performance is faultless – his acting of his disability is 100% convincing and you sense his understanding of his own character is immense. He’s one of those actors who’s just a joy to watch. Nevertheless, it’s also the terrific ensemble of Irish actors who make this production so successful.

Padraic DelaneyI particularly loved the performances of Ingrid Craigie as the slightly mentally fragile Kate and Gillian Hanna as the no-nonsense Eileen, Billy’s two aunts. They work together so well that you really would believe they are a pair of sisters who have lived together in the backwaters of Ireland all their lives. The lyrical nature of their speech patterns really adds to the humour when they are mocking each other, and to the pathos when they are up to their eyeballs in emotions. They’re both brilliant performances, masterclasses in running the gamut A to Z.

June WatsonThere’s also a superb performance by Pat Shortt as local gossip Johnnypateenmike, convincingly bringing out both the loveable rogue and cruel bully aspects of the character. Sarah Greene is a glamorously dangerous Helen, the prospective sexual light at the end of many a local young man’s tunnel; spitting out her insults with childish glee, she tramples over the feelings of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Even Billy hopes he might have a chance with her, despite her hoots of mocking derision.

Gary LilburnI very much liked Padraic Delaney as the seemingly laid back Babbybobby, owner of the little boateen (there seems to be an “een” on the end of half the words in this play) that can take islanders to the mainland – and beyond. And there’s a wonderful performance from June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy; a drunken old sot who ought to be at death’s door with the alcohol she’s consumed but seems to thrive on it, much to her son’s disappointment. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent.

Conor MacNeilYou come away from the play with a sense of real humanity, despite all the dreadful things that get done and said, and a real appreciation for the author’s understanding of his characters and landscape. It got a massive cheer, and not just because Daniel Radcliffe has a sizeable fan base, but because it’s a simply brilliant production. I would definitely count it the most successful of the season so far. Highly recommended.