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While big musicals like Hamilton and Lion King continue to dominate at the box office, critical acclaim is helping to fill the seats (and boost revenues) for several high-profile plays this season. Alongside Harry Potter, Lifespan of a Fact and the much-hyped To Kill A Mockingbird, West End transplant The Ferryman has vaulted itself to the New York spotlight.
The Knick team attended a recent performance of the three-act play, in which one family grapples with the long-lasting effects of Ireland’s brutal fight for independence. Here’s why we loved The Ferryman, which quickly became one of our new favorites.
The play, written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, takes place in rural Northern Ireland during the Troubles in 1981. Pro-independence Irish Republican prisoners are on hunger strike, and nine already having died. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refuses to take action. Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Army is attempting to pivot its reputation towards more mainstream political force than violent, terrorizing militia. And yet, the IRA continues its bloody campaign against British rule.
Yet in The Ferryman, this heavy context plays out on a small scale—albeit with a huge cast—set inside the kitchen of a rural, Northern Ireland farmhouse. Its residents are the Carney family, comprising Quinn (Paddy Considine), his troubled wife Mary (Catherine McCormack) and their seven children, plus Quinn’s sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), her teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone), Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert), staunchly pro-Irish Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy), Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), and the English-born, cognitively-impaired farmhand, Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards). The cast swells in the second act, once the cousins show up to help with the harvest, along with a few not-so-welcome visitors: Republican party men and a priest.
Through this cast of 21, The Ferryman boils down The Troubles to a family drama. The spark? The body of Caitlin’s long-missing husband—Quinn’s brother—has turned up perfectly preserved in a bog. This discovery, announced in the prologue, sends the Carney family—and the entire audience—careening on a high intensity ride where familial, party, and national loyalties are all tested.
The Ferryman does an exceptional job at slowly revealing pivotal pieces of the Carney family history. Minute by minute, truth bombs fall on the stage, shifting our understanding of who’s who, and pushing the dynamic plot forward.
In true Irish fashion, The Ferryman is equal parts hilarious and tragic, with a fair amount of dramatic tension mixed in as well.
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Looking for the right show to see? Let The Knick be your guide. Check out our reviews of some of Broadways biggest current hits, like Hamilton, Frozen, Come from Away, Once on This Island, Mean Girls, and more.