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Review: Family fun, friction and fear in Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, Royal Court

FERRYMAN_Feb17_RoyalCourt_2500x1000-900x600Jez Butterworth's last play, The River, I described as the 'difficult second album' after the stellar success of Jerusalem - obviously it wasn't his second play but you know what I was getting at. I also, with an inadvertent sense of premonition described it as 'palate cleanser before the next big course'. The Ferryman is certainly that big course and not just because it's 3 hours and 15 minutes long and has a cast of 22 (including a baby) but because it is a delicious feast of a play.

The Carney family live on a farm, it's summer and they are about to get the harvest in. It's a happy time, a time of celebration where everyone comes together, working hard during the day, revelling in the evenings. It is a time of traditions that has birthed happy memories for the three generations of the family. But this is 1981 Northern Ireland, hunger strikers are dying in the Maze and the Good Friday agreement is still 17 years away. The spectre of The Troubles looms large and not just in the memories of past events. 

Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is head of the family and father of seven children with his sickly wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly). Quinn's sister in law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and son Oisin (Rob Malone) also live at the farm as does his Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy), a fervent Nationalist, his gentle, story-telling Uncle Patrick (Des McAleer) and dementia-riddled Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan) who has brief moments of lucid recollection described by the family as 'visits'.

What Jez Butterworth has written is a piece rich in personality, humour, passion, tension, politics and history and director Sam Mendes has taken a brilliant script and cast and turned it into a superb  tragi-comedy thriller.

The big family scenes probably best exemplify the genius of the play. There is so much going on - teenagers' jibes, excited kids teasing and arguing and grown ups chatting - all the while their looks and gestures speaking volumes. These scenes are carefully crafted chaos peppered with some great one-liners but are also a window into the soul of the family and deeper emotions at play. They are also a window into the family history which is rapidly catching up with them.

These scenes lay the foundation for those more deeper, concentrated conversations but Jez Butterworth doesn't just give us the grown ups views and conflicts, this is a genuine generational drama from the youngest of the Carney's talking to Aunt Maggie Far Away when she 'visits' to the teenagers late night drinking chat. It is all revealing. The play is layered to show the influence and impact of history and culture on the different family members. It is also subtly a social commentary on The Troubles.

Paddy Considine - making his stage debut - expertly portrays the complexity of Quinn Carney; on the surface a loving, loyal, protective family man who underneath is seething with conflicting emotions and ghosts of a past life he wants to escape. His is one of a ensemble of superb performances - Brid Brennan's quietly smiling Aunt Maggie, John Hodgkinson's simple and socially awkward Tom Kettle and Tom Glyn-Carney's smug and scared Shane Corcoran to name just three but it is Laura Donnelly's Caitlin which really stands out. It is a performance which manages to be bustling mother full of love, loss, sensitivity, practicality, pragmatism and strength. There are certain scenes she is in where her performance still haunts me.

It is a play of passion, depth, simmering danger and violence, at times funny, heart-wrenching and edge of your seat tense and I can't recommend it enough. Jez Butterworth is back with a very big bang and he's getting five big fat stars from me.

It's at the Royal Court until May 20 (tickets are sold out apart from Monday £12 tickets) but is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End from June 20 - Oct 7.