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A CurtainUp London Review
The Ferryman
"I want you to remember something. . . . That a man who takes care of his family, is a man who can look himself in the eye in the morning." — Quinn
The Ferryman
Laura Donnelly as Caitlin and Paddy Considine as Quinn (Photo: Johan Persson)
Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem starred Mark Rylance and was an international best seller of tickets to see it. Now Jez Butterworth breaks with the tradition of his plays set in the English countryside to look at the impact on a family of the Northern Ireland troubles in County Armagh in 1981.

Although the play is no longer English, Butterworth's interest in myth and legend and history remains in an Irish context. The title The Ferryman alludes to Charon the ferryman of Greek mythology who carried the dead souls over the River Styx to the underworld.

The play opens with a priest, Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan), summoned to an IRA stronghold in Derry becausea body has been found by the police in the bog: IRA activist Seamus Carney, a twenty year old father of one wee'un, who disappeared on New Year's Day 1972. His hands and feet had been bound and there is a bullet hole in the back of his head. The peat bog has perfectly preserved his body but it has blackened with the bog water. Since his disappearance, there have been several sightings reported in Liverpool, and other places.

In 1981, the time the play is set, the Provisional IRA Hunger strikers, led by Bobby Sands, are starving themselves to death in prison, protesting against the removal of their Special Category prisoner status. Sands died in May 1981 and nine others followed him. In a damage limitation exercise by the IRA who will be thought to have executed Seamus, Father Horrigan is coerced into visiting the Carney family to talk to the head of the family and Seamus's brother, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine).

We cut to the Armagh farmhouse, the home of Quinn Carney and his sickly wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly) and their seven children; also numerous other relatives including Seamus's wife, now his widow, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and Seamus's child, his son Oisin (Rob Malone). Quinn and Caitlin have been up most of the night and we can see how much they enjoy each other's company. They are due to get the harvest in today with the help of the red headed Corcoran boys, cousins to Quinn's children.

Director Sam Mendes and writer Jez Butterworth convey all the rambunctious chaos of this multi-occupied family home with constant arrivals down the staircase. In a wheelchair sits Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan), the aged aunt who drops in and out of dementia and clarity. Uncle Pat Carney (Des McAleer) educates the whole family in Greek and Roman mythology and fights with his Nemesis, the Irish Republican revolutionary Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy) as they exchange insults. Working on the farm is Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), abandoned by his English parents as a child and taken in by the Carneys. Tom is slow and pedantic as those in the spectrum but he is expert at producing a live rabbit out of his coat as well as giving everyone apples. There is also a young baby playing the youngest of the Carneys.

Like Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's text is infused with tales and family history. Aunt Maggie talks about a boy from another village she once loved, sings a love song and terrifies with tales about the legendary screaming Banshees. Aunt Patricia recalls the Easter Rising in April 1916 in Dublin and her brother who was killed. There is song and music, Irish dancing and songs of Republicanism and after the ceilidh, the Corcoran boys dance to a punk band. The live goose we see onstage is to be killed to feed the 17 or so who will sit down to the Harvest Supper with Caitlin cooking for everyone.

After Father Horrigan's visit, Quinn decides not to tell them about Seamus until after the harvest has been brought in but they are visited by Muldoon who appears to be treated with respect and fear by all except Quinn and Caitlin. I cannot reveal the violent denouement here but it will have everyone debating the rights and wrongs of the situation.

Butterworth's play runs at three and a quarter hours but every minute keeps your attention in this fantastically crafted and atmospheric drama, well directed and brilliantly acted story of family loyalty and Irish politics. After its run at the Royal Court, The Ferryman will open at the Gielgud in Shaftesbury Avenue.

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The Ferryman
Written by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Stuart Graham, Genevieve O'Reilly, Des McAleer, Dearbhla Molloy, Brid Brennan, Gerard Horan, John Hodgkinson
With: Turlough Convery, Eugene O'Hare, Elise Alexandre, Darcey Conway, Angel O'Callaghan, Clara Murphy, Carla Langley, Niall Wright, Sophie ally, Grace Doherty, Rob Malone, Fra Fee, Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeill, Michael McCarthy, Xavier Moras Spencer
Playing Bobby Carney aged nine months: Dulcie Bowers, Freddie Dudley, Hayden Levy, Henry-George Stoker, Hollie Reeks, Lennie Clark, Leon Hatch, Rocky Higgins, Teddy Ciecko
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin
Composer and Sound Design: Nick Powell
Fight Director: Terry King
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval and a short pause
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 at the Royal Court and then at The Gielgud
Booking to 20th May 2017 at the Royal Court and then to November 2017 at the Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th May 2017 performance at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, The Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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