I’d been interested in seeing The Ferryman since reading rave reviews in the autumn after its transfer from the Royal Court. 3 West End extensions and 3 Olivier Awards, including Best New Play, later I had to get around to seeing it before it closed (in just five days time).
The Ferryman, written by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and directed by Sam Mendes, is set in Northern Ireland in 1981. The Carney family prepare for the annual harvest during the Northern Ireland Conflict. Premiering at the Royal Court Theatre, The Ferryman became the fastest-selling show in the theatre’s history, receiving critical acclaim.
The play begins when Seamus Carney’s body was found intact in a bog after being missing for 10 years. He was one of the Disappeared, one of the 16 people killed by the IRA and buried in unknown locations, with their families left to wonder for decades whether they were dead or alive. After disappearing, his wife, Caitlin, and his sone, Oisin, stayed with Seamus’ older brother, Quinn, and family. Caitlin’s presence has changed the family dynamic, with his wife, Mary, staying out of the way and Caitlin help raise the children.
Uncle Patrick, Aunt Patricia and Aunt Maggie Faraway also live on the farm with varying opinions on The Troubles, alongside Englishman Tom Kettle. Tom is a sour reminder of the tensions between the Irish and the English, and is often the butt of many jokes within life on the farm. The Ferryman takes the reality of living in Northern Ireland during the conflict and brings it to modern day London, where many audience members will remember the bombings that were taking place as recently as less than 25 years ago.
Whilst I fully appreciated the writing and the direction, I wish I’d have known more about The Troubles prior to seeing The Ferryman. If I’m totally honest, I know very little about post-war Europe as my schooling only focussed on the Cold War after WWII. This is a play that would definitely resonate more with people who lived through the conflict, and would make it easier to follow.
I put off seeing The Ferryman for quite a while because I knew it was a three hour play, but it actually went fairly quickly until Act 3. Whilst the third act had some really critical historical context, I did start to lose interest and was ready for it to finish. But this is nothing on the production as such, although with Rosalie Craig not in it so much I began to lose interest. For me, she stole the show as Caitlin Carney after replacing Olivier award winner, and partial inspiration for the play, Laura Donnelly.
The Ferryman has a large cast, and could be considered more of an ensemble piece, although the audience definitely had their hearts stolen by Baby Bobby and the live animals in the production. All parts were played brilliantly, and the younger actors involved in the show definitely have a great future ahead of them.
The set was simple but incredibly effective. With the stage being particularly tall, the addition of stairs in the set allowed all levels to be used which isn’t often seen in the theatre at the moment. Perspective was also clearly thought about, and I was overly impressed with a simply idea coming off so well.
The costumes were fairly simple, although I wouldn’t have necessarily put them as early 80s costumes. This may have been due to the fact this was a rural piece, rather than set in the city, but it was just something I notcied. I also struggled with the sound during the first act. The microphones were a little too quiet, so I missed most of what was said during the first scene – not ideal when it’s actually laying down the plot.
Main Cast: 8/10
Lighting Design: 7/10
Sound Design: 5/10
Set Design: 8/10
Costume Design: 5/10
Audience Engagement: 8/10
Away from the play, and onto the theatre itself, the Gielgud Theatre is a wonderful venue but please bear in mind that if you’re seeing anything there the stalls are a long walk down. The staging is built below ground level, so if you want a short walk, the dress circle would be a better bet for you. The leg room is pretty good, and the seating is well dispersed that you’re not looking at the back of heads despite a very shallow rake in the stalls.
I’ll be back at the Gielgud Theatre in October when Rosalie Craig returns to the West End stage in Company. But if you desperately want to catch her before then, The Ferryman is playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 19th May, before opening on Broadway in October with much of the original cast.