by Rachel Beaumont

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Alright, cleverclogs: The Ferryman at Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman
Royal Court Theatre Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions with Neal Street Productions
Gielgud Theatre
Grand Circle D24, £15
10 March 2018
Royal Court page

The Ferryman is a beautifully written, staggeringly well constructed play let down by a very silly story. Given it’s supposed to be about something very serious this silliness ends up undermining the whole enterprise, even as far as implicating Jez Butterworth in a moral quandary: is no heartache safe against his ambition?

All of which is no doubt most unfair. I’m almost sure Butterworth was entirely sincere, utterly unconscious to the fact that the twist to his tale could seem trivializing. And yet it is, occupying an unhappy quadruple whammy of being implausible, ludicrously portentous, grindingly predictable and annoyingly derivative of Of Mice and Men. Which, for any audience member whose been through an English Lit GCSE, is a bad thing to be.

Naffness is always annoying, but it’s made even more so here as it curdles what is in almost all other ways an indecently impressive play. Butterworth’s handling of exposition blew my mind; he’s almost like David Foster Wallace, carefully portioning out information such that we think we’re joining the dots while never breaking free of the puppet strings. Deriving from that, his characterization and dialogue exquisitely arch realism and poetry, true to himself and to the story. Except for silly old Lenny.

Butterworth is helped, of course, by extravagant production design, the Royal Court obviously backing its horse all the way. Cast of more than 20, with a load of children? No problem. Needless numerous animals on stage? Go ahead. Take Sam Mendes as well. Which makes that naffness frustrating a third time over. It’s a lot of money spent on – and no doubt made from – something essentially dilettantish.

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