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Johan Persson

The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre

27 January 2018 Suzanne Frost

Recently voted best play at the Theatre Awards 2017 and lauded by critics The Ferryman is one of London's hottest tickets right now.

With over three hours running time the Northern Ireland epic, written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, is the kind of play you come out of needing a stiff drink and the chance to just sit and digest the overwhelming emotional journey you have been taken on. After a sold out run at the Royal Court Theatre in early 2017, it has since transferred to the Gielgud Theatre and is currently taking bookings until May.
 
It is 1981. A body has been found: Seamus Carney who disappeared 10 years ago under mysterious circumstances. The Carney’s priest, Father Horrigan, is summoned by some dark and dangerous IRA people and reluctantly sent to inform the family. So off we go to rural Armagh to meet the entire family: Quinn and his wife Mary (bed-ridden with some unknown virus - or is it depression?), their 6 children and the new born baby, sweet natured Uncle Pat, Auntie Pat the die-hard Republican and ancient Aunt Maggie Far Away in her wheelchair, her mind off somewhere lost in the labyrinths of dementia.


Owen McDonnell and the current cast of The Ferryman (c) Johan Persson

The harvest needs to be brought in and the Corcoran cousins will be here any minute with their strong hands and Tom Kettle is chasing the goose for the feast. The stage is bursting with colour and movement, with people big and small, with animals, pots and pans, song and dance and nonstop chatting and bickering. It is a feast for the eyes, a burning glass perspective into family life and the most naturalistic acting imaginable. The radio plays Led Zeppelin, briefly interrupted by Margaret Thatcher stating that “a crime is a crime is a crime” and somewhere in prison Bobby Sands dies in the hunger strike. A quick glass of Bushmills whiskey to toast those brave men giving their lives and then on with the farmwork. Surely they can put the troubles behind them for one day. Or can they?
 
There is a distinct cinematic quality to Director Sam Mendes’ staging that feels often more like watching a television drama rather than live theatre. Under the roof that houses so many, Caitlyn, wife of Seamus, and her son Oisin have found refuge since Seamus disappeared. Unfortunately, alarmingly, the attraction between Quinn (Owen McDonnell) and Caitlin (Rosalie Craig), his brother’s wife, becomes harder and harder to hide.


Rosalie Craig and Owen McDonnell in The Ferryman (c) Johan Persson
 
The loss of a loved one can destroy even the strongest family but when there is no body, no proof of death, no closure and no healing, moving on becomes impossible. Seamus, the missing brother, father and husband, hangs like a shadow over this seemingly so jolly family. So do feelings of guilt, revenge and fear, as the political becomes personal. How important is justice when you have a family to feed?  And how important is a single family in the face of such injustice? Add to the mix the cries of Banshees, the mythological harbingers of death, for a superstitious element of magical realism that makes the hair on your back stand up.
 
The title of The Ferryman refers to the mythological figure of Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx into the underworld. But souls that haven’t been put to rest, he cannot take on board. All the characters in this play seem to be lost somewhere between one world and another until history steps in demanding retribution in the most violent way.
 
The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 19 May 2018. Tickets between £12-£94,50 with limited availability.
 
 
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