The Ferryman @ The Gielgud Theatre

Since its sell out run at the Royal Court earlier in the year Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ has received a plethora of rave reviews, yesterday I caught the West End transfer of Sam Mendes’s highly acclaimed production.  Set on a farm in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s during ‘The Troubles’ it focused on the Carney family and how, through submerging themselves in pastoral life, they sought to distance themselves from the violent intensity of the struggles of that era.  However, Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) was constantly on hand to remind the family of the harsh brutality of life in Northern Ireland outside the relative comfort of the Carney’s microcosm.  She would listen intently to the radio and inform the family of the hunger strikers in the notorious Maze Prison.  The stalemate of the struggle was evocatively captured by Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘Crime is crime is crime’ ringing out from the family radio.  This set the tone for a thrilling examination of how conflicting perceptions of national identity can have a devastating impact on family relationships.

For almost the full three hours and ten minutes the sole setting was the Carney’s kitchen, this was striking in its simplicity. At times the kitchen was a hub of excitement for the whole family with whiskey being passed around, jokes being told and Irish dancing at the harvest celebration.  However, the kitchen was also a place where secrets were shared and plots hatched which depicted the darker, more secretive lives of the Carney family.  You were constantly made to think about who is, or could be, offstage listening, lurking and processing the drama onstage.  Paddy Considine played the patriarch Quinn (whose brother Seamus had disappeared ten years earlier under suspicious circumstances), he was masterful and commanding in the central role (his first theatrical performance).  His chemistry with his sister in law, Caitlyn (Laura Donnelly), was palpable and made all the more awkward by the presence of his wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly).  Uncle Pat (Des McAleer) stood out for me as the comedic, whiskey swilling old man of the family.  However, he was haunting as he recounted Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid with its tales of stagnant souls in the underworld.  The overt intertextuality highlighted the continual pain and suffering that occurs from the lack of closure when a death is left unexplained and a body has not been recovered.

 The play interrogated the impact that living through the trauma of ‘The Troubles’ had on the younger generation.  Shena (Carla Langley), one of the daughters, sang Kim Wilde’s infectious early 80s pop anthem ‘Kids in America’, its joyful exuberance signalling a more carefree and appropriate world for the teenagers of the play.  Oisin’s (Rob Malone) kite hinted at the desire of this troubled young man who, living without the full knowledge of what had happened to his father, sought to emancipate himself from the stifling atmosphere of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, I missed Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’ a few years ago, so this was my first experience of a Jez Butterworth play.  The subtlety and complexity of the plot of ‘The Ferryman’ was exquisite, small details were revealed delicately throughout the three acts which culminated in an explosive climax.  There were a few occasions where I thought things could have been swifter in order to maintain the dramatic intensity of the play.  The criticism of Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) for being a somewhat strange Englishman was, for me, not wholly necessary and slightly clunky.  However, the scope of Butterworth’s play and his skill for depicting the unresolved tensions of family life was phenomenal; I would definitely recommend catching it as soon as possible!


The Glass Menagerie @ The Duke of York’s

Last night was a chance to familiarise myself with another of Tennessee Williams’s signature matriarchs, one that I had not previously seen before. Having been stunned by Kim Cattrall (Alexandra Del Lago/Princess Kosmonopolis – Sweet Bird of Youth), captivated by Gillian Anderson and wowed by Maxine Peake (both as Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire), I decided to check out Cherry Jones‘s Amanda Wingfield in this fraught family drama. She was astounding as the faded, deluded mother attempting to reconcile her former glory with her troubled present. However, whilst Jones was excellent, this really was an ensemble piece in which all of the characters shone when it was their turn in the spotlight. The West End transfer of the American Repertory Theatre production was slick, fast-paced and highlighted the turbulence of the time. It interrogated how drastic social change can lead to devastating consequences.

Michael Esper was endearing from the start as he broke the fourth wall and invited the audience to travel back in time with him as he revisited a pivotal decision in his life. The cast members were assembled imaginatively (I won’t spoil how Laura – Kate O’Flynn – made her entrance) and the close psychological examination of each character’s foibles was gripping to watch. Laura’s shyness, and her mother’s desire for a ‘gentleman caller’ to take care of her daughter, was the catalyst for Tom to invite his work colleague for dinner. This dinner party, the dramatic climax of the play, was to be Amanda’s chance to provide her daughter with some means of livelihood in order for her to break free from her solitary existence.

Each character was delicately revealed by Williams’s masterful dialogue and use of symbolism. Laura’s fascination with her unicorn, the centrepiece of her glass menagerie, captured her introverted spirit and her innate insecurities and vulnerabilities. This was expertly polarised by Jones’s brash and bold Amanda whose twirling and posturing in her white gown heightened the deep sense of pathos felt for the jaded Southern belle. The metal fire escape that stretched to the sky signalled a way out of the stifling, claustrophobic flat for the disenfranchised Tom. His smoking breaks on the terrace were a perfect opportunity for him to reflect and conceptualise the next steps in his life. Esper masterfully conveyed the agonising decision of leaving his ‘crippled’ sister in order to pursue a life free from his overbearing and oppressive mother.

This production of The Glass Menagerie really did depict the raw spirit and emotion of the play. The simple staging allowed the power of Williams’s text to be the star (I felt the Royal Exchange’s recent A Streetcar Named Desire was too busy and certain nuances were lost). It was an intense glimpse at the complexities of family life; Tom’s dilemma showed the difficulties of how to thrive as an individual in the fast-changing world of Williams’s ‘New America’.

People, Places & Things @ The Wyndham’s Theatre

Today I finally got to see Headlong’s production of People, Places & Things. It was a real case of being late to the party with this one (as it closes in just over two weeks). I really wanted to see it at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, as the small auditorium really adds to the impact of its productions. I still remember seeing London Road there (when it was called The Cottesloe) twice in 2011 and being astounded by the intimacy of the space. However, this afternoon, for People, Places & Things I was lucky enough to get one of the seats on stage which meant that, despite being in a larger venue, I was still able to marvel at all of the intricacies of the production.

The play focuses on Denise Gough’s character Lucy (or is that Nina, Emma or Sarah?), who is checked in to a rehab clinic to help her battle her addiction to drugs and alcohol. She is evasive and unresponsive to the help offered, and she, right until the end, denies the staff, the other patients and the audience the knowledge of her true identity. Whilst in the clinic she quotes postmodern theorists, so it seems fitting that our protagonist projects a ‘myriad of plural selves’ throughout the play. This plurality had the strange quality of both distancing her from and endearing her to the audience. We learn that she previously worked as an actor and she depicted the inherent loneliness of constantly living as someone else. After a failed attempt at rehabilitation in the first act, the second was more positive and upbeat until the climax in which the reunion with her parents was shockingly poignant. Through learning about Lucy’s life from her mother the audience was afforded a brief glimpse of how addiction affects families, not just the patients themselves.

Headlong’s production was slick and inventive. The white box set was harsh and clinical and totally matched the atmosphere of the play. The sets manoeuvred at lightning quick speed and the staging was highly imaginative. The emergence of copies of Lucy from her bed and the floor was totally unexpected; it illuminated the apparent distortion of her mind. So much has been written about Denise Gough’s performance that it’s hard to know what to add. Being so close to her on stage was something I will remember for many years to come. Whilst postmodernism seeks to distance itself from knowable, functional truths, truthful and honest, for me, totally sums up the performance. She played defiant, difficult and reckless with brute force. The response of the other characters to her ruining her fellow patient’s graduation demonstrated how aggravating she could be, yet she still managed to evoke deep sympathy from the audience. The second act was, I felt, where she really excelled. Her softness, subtlety and fragility when she finally decides to role play during the therapy sessions with the other patients was heart-wrenching.

The one negative point about this play is that it is only on for approximately two more weeks. I would love the chance to see it again, as I am sure I would definitely notice things that I didn’t on my first viewing. The hype surrounding People, Places & Things is truly deserved. The standing ovation of the full house (on a Thursday afternoon!) at The Wyndham’s Theatre really does signal what a stunning play this is.

Blue/Orange @ The Young Vic

‘It’s a big world in here’ is an apt slogan for The Young Vic, every time I go I’m always excited to see what they’ve done with the performance space. My first visit in 2008 saw the auditorium transformed into a cement factory for Jane Horrocks’s captivating performance in Brecht’s ‘The Good Soul of Szechuan’. With this production the design team at The Young Vic have done it again and the set for Blue/Orange did not disappoint. As we took our seats the walk through the psychiatric ward corridor and waiting room immersed you in the action from the start (Well… I liked it, although the two old ladies I was following with walking difficulties weren’t as complimentary)! It really set the voyeuristic tone that was developed throughout the play, as we were observing a mental patient at their most vulnerable.

The play, first performed in 2000 at the National Theatre, focused on a patient (Christopher) whose diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder was the catalyst for a quarrel between two medical professionals. Haig’s belligerent yet bumbling Robert advocated a care in the community approach, whilst Luke Norris’s Bruce pushed for Christopher to receive further treatment at the hospital. With the wave of new writing about government cuts at the moment (Escaped Alone at The Royal Court and Boy at The Almeida are just two that I’ve seen recently) it seems like an appropriate time for a revival of this play. However, I felt the plot didn’t have the sense of subtlety needed for such a weighty topic. This lack of depth stemmed from the fact that the two doctors were so diametrically opposed in their views, which was clearly evident from the start. As a result, despite the sensitive subject matter, I was slightly detached from caring about Christopher’s fate. Although, maybe that was the point of the play?

The performances were powerful and the script did allow the three characters to showcase their acting talents. Daniel Kaluuya was perfect as Christopher, his ability to switch effortlessly from manic and menacing to calm and pensive added a real sense of truthfulness to his performance. During the scenes which featured just the two doctors on stage Christopher’s presence pacing around below the action heightened the feeling of paranoia and panic in his character. The set resembled a boxing ring and enabled Haig and Norris to enact their verbal battle about Christopher’s condition with power and ferocity. Haig’s passive aggressive portrayal of Robert was pitched perfectly and was infuriating for Bruce (and also the watching audience). As the two exchanged blows, the humour of the play became more overt. Towards the end the comic discussion of the Welsh Rarebit effectively highlighted the total deterioration of the pair’s working relationship.

I loved the late 90s and early 00s soundtrack that played before the start and during the interval. I particularly enjoyed singing along to the Destiny’s Child classic ‘Say My Name’! This, along with the mobile phone and reference to the Millennium Dome, did possibly highlight that Blue/Orange is now slightly dated. Whilst the performances were excellent, a more nuanced voice is needed to comment on the state of mental health provision in the NHS at present.