Review: The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre

Jez Butterworth’s new play is a West End smash hit.

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Following a sold-out run at the Royal Court earlier this year, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman is now at home in the Gielgud Theatre in the heart of the West End.

Starring Paddy Considine and directed by Sam Mendes, the Royal Court production sold out in just one day, becoming the fast-selling show in the venue’s history.

The trifecta of Mendes, Considine and Butterworth has set the West End production in good stead too, with the play previously announcing that it would be extending its run until January 2018.

All the fuss about the show is completely justified. It’s a thrilling, visceral journey about a family’s past and the dark secrets they keep, which unfolds over the course of three, intoxicatingly vivid and powerful hours of theatre.

Set in 1981 in County Armagh, it follows the Carney family on their farm as they cultivate their annual harvest. They’re a ragtag bunch of wonderfully drawn characters, from foul-mouthed kids to unhappily married aunts and uncles; collectively, they revolve around Quinn (Considine) and Caitlin (an astoundingly good Laura Donnelly), in-laws, whose secret affection for one another slowly reveals itself as the drama builds around them.

It’s a huge cast for a play, and the opening scenes flood the stage with extended family members, neighbours and farm hands. It could easily be suffocating and overwhelming, but Butterworth’s expert writing and Mendes’ sharp direction help pull the characters together in a series of interactions that feel natural, always feeling both comedic and touching, powerful and irreverent in equal measure.

Thematically the play deals with all kinds of issues. Narratives etch away at family feuds stretching as far back as the Easter Rising, the would-be love story for Quinn and Caitlin is peppered with bittersweet melancholy, and the dark shadow the IRA casts over the family permeates throughout.

Rob Howell’s design and Peter Mumford’s lighting only add to the mood of the piece, too. The set is dark, crumbling and run-down, but also strangely inviting: much like the Carneys themselves.

Ultimately though, this is a piece driven by an expert cast. There’s no weak link here, and the way the drama bubbles away through secret whisperings, dramatic monologues and crowded dinner scenes as it builds towards its truly shocking conclusion is a sheer masterclass in theatrical talent.

The Ferryman runs at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January 2018. Paddy Considine appears until 7 October 2017. Tickets are on sale now via