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Review: Ulster American, Riverside Studios - lacks subtlety to give it real punch

1. Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport)  Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan Persson
Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport) Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Ulster American at Riverside Studios. Photo by Johan Persson

If you've seen David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, which had a sell-out run at the Royal Court a few years ago, you can tell Ulster American is written by the same hand, but it is nonetheless a very different beast.

Both plays look at sectarianism and identity in Northern Ireland, but Ulster American examines it through the lens of two outsiders: An Irish American actor Jay (Woody Harrelson) and an English theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis).

The ignorance of the two is highlighted by protestant Northern Irish playwright Ruth (Louisa Harland).

But Ruth's presence also exposes their ignorance on a number of other issues. She adds a feminist lens to the narrative and a vehicle through which to examine attitudes towards equality - and sexual violence towards women.

The play is set in the London home of theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis), the day before rehearsals begin on Ruth's violent new play set in Northern Ireland.

Jay, a Hollywood star, is playing the lead, and his lack of understanding of the play's subject matter and its historical context is problematic.

Leigh's only concern is keeping him on board, particularly with the promise of a Broadway run. He would rather change the play than lose the star.

But Ruth won't pander to Jay and Leigh's ignorance and prejudices and refuses to change a word of the play.

Both men talk a good talk about feminism, but casual remarks, including one about rape, reveal otherwise and prove to be leverage in the power dynamic.

Woody Harrelson's Leigh is a mass of contradictions, constantly undermining his own moral convictions with often comic effect. He believes in his humbleness while simultaneously demonstrating that he is anything but. 

Leigh drinks copious amounts (even though Jay is a recovering alcoholic) and won't stand up for his own values. He bends them to suit the particular audience to keep up appearances - and keep the peace.

Ulster America exposes the cheapness of talk and has a good smattering of funny lines, albeit they aren't always comfortable laughs.

However, it feels like it is trying too hard to be provocative. It lacks subtlety and, rather than a slow build, bulldozes its way through, ultimately leaving it few places to go.

It demeans the shock value and gives it few places to go other than descending into farce and something worse.

The approach is like using a sledgehammer to crack an egg. The result is a messy splat of white, yolk and shell rather than an ingredient you can cook with.

I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️.

Ulster American, Riverside Studios

Written by David Ireland

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis & Louisa Harland

Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes without an interval.

Booking until 27 January visit the Riverside Studios for more information and to buy tickets.

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