The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth – Gielgud Theatre
The Ferryman was my first ever West End play. And before I discuss the piece itself, I’m going to go on two rants about things I noticed re: the West End. Feel free to skip ahead. Firstly, oh my gosh those tickets prices. I knew the West End was pricey, I’d heard tell of this and accepted it as a given. But I didn’t realise quite how pricey. The majority of tickets for this performance were around the £60 mark and a lot of these were not especially good seats. For £60, I want to be able to reach out and tap the actor’s shoes. Not be sat up on a vertigo inducing balcony miles away from the stage. And some tickets were £94! I know the productions on the West End are of a large scale and cost a little more to produce, which is reflected in the pricing. I was still shocked at the seeming lack of effort to make the show affordable though. £95 tickets just mean that the same wealthy audiences will keep returning and you’re unlikely to attract anyone new, particularly younger audiences or those from lower income backgrounds. Diversity in the arts should cover those working in the industry and audiences, and the West End (in my tiny experience of it on this play) seems to have absolutely no interest in it. The only lower-priced offerings were restricted view, or extremely restricted view. I got a £25 restricted view ticket and actually ended up getting a decent seat, I just had to lean forward a bit and accept that stage right was a mystery I’d never know. However, it still discomforts me that this is the only way of attending affordably. I know restricted view seats being the cheapest is common in theatres. That’s fine (but seriously architects, get it together and stop making theatres where some of the seats can’t actually see the stage). However, many theatres now offer these restricted view reduced prices along with cheaper tickets for younger audiences or unwaged patrons, amongst others (NT, The Bridge, RSC etc). Not seeing some of the performance shouldn’t be the only way of seeing a West End show cheaply. I don’t like the idea of grouping all those who’ve had to pay less together. It feels almost like a quarantine (albeit a nice one, I got chatting to a girl also my age who’d plumped for the same price ticket, she was much friendlier than the lady sat in the pricey seats who tutted at me for simply sitting down – genuinely thought these people only existed as TV caricatures). Spending the show unable to see sections of the stage because apparently you can’t afford to see everything means you spend the whole time being reminded that this experience isn’t necessarily for you. You aren’t who they’re trying to draw in here. Maybe I’m being bitter, or overly sensitive or whatever. But to me, £25 is still quite a lot of money and too much to not be able to see a decent sized portion of the stage (but I was close enough to really see the expressions on the actors faces and smaller details in the set, the seats could definitely have been worse!). Also, if I’m mistaken and there is in fact a scheme to get cheaper access to West End tickets for young/lower income audiences, please do show it me! But restricted view seats don’t count. That’s just a way of filling the auditorium and making sure folk can’t complain when they’re unable to see, that’s not an access scheme.
Rant number two time. Strap in lads. Shaftesbury Avenue is a terrible place. I’ve never seen anywhere with such an uncomfortable blend of rich and indifferent tourists, fancy venues and restaurants, and extreme poverty in the form of rough sleepers occupying every available doorway. People seemed irritated by their presence, rather than concerned for their welfare. The juxtaposition between those sleeping in the doorways and the theatre patrons strolling past was jarring, and made me keenly aware of my own privilege. I gave some change but that’s never really enough and likely not going to impact anyone’s life positively in the long run. So I need to do more on that front in terms of volunteering because at the moment I’m not doing enough. I hope the theatres and other places drawing in so much money around that area are doing their bit. The other aspect I was quite uncomfortable with was the sleaziness. The huge Windmill club advertising its table dancers. The phone boxes covered with astoundingly graphic prostitute adverts. I saw some tourists taking photos of their daughter stood next to one of the ‘iconic’ red phone boxes. They seemed not to have noticed the flyers. I also saw what I am fairly certain was a human poo. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say it had ended up higher than I believe a dog could have gotten it. A truly disgusting sight. I wasn’t expecting streets of gold but I really wasn’t expecting what I got.
The show itself was lovely. I didn’t know much about the play prior to seeing it, I’d just heard it was good. My sources proved reliable. The acting was brilliant, particularly Mark Lambert as Uncle Patrick Carney. He was so warm and joyful throughout I found myself wanting him to be my Uncle. Despite dealing with the topic of the troubles the play isn’t short on moments of fun, many of them centring on Uncle Pat. Sam Mendes (director) aims for realism and more than achieves it. You feel truly immersed in 1980s Ireland, like you’re sat amongst the family yourself. The comfort the actors have built around each other made them so believable as a real family. The set was incredible as well. It was detailed and impressive without coming off as showy, it enhanced the realism rather than creating a spectacle of itself. The happiness the family environment evokes makes the end all the more affecting.
Now – potentially some spoilers here, in terms of staging rather than plot. They use a real goose, a real rabbit and a real baby onstage. It’s an impressive feat to work with such unpredictable co-stars and have it seem effortless. That said, some of it actually served as a distraction rather than enhancing the play, for me anyway. Post the appearance of the rabbit I found myself pondering its safety, how they’d got it to stay so still, how it stays in a pocket without getting hurt, is he a professional acting bunny, if so, how do they train him, or is he just someone’s pet? All these questions racing through my mind, and then I realised I’d missed some of the dialogue. So maybe not the intended effect there. Well done to little showbiz bunny, truly stole the scene.
The play demonstrates the ease with which people can be drawn into committing awful acts they don’t truly understand, along with the perils of operating in black and white terms on matters where so many shades of grey exist. Definitely recommend.
Quick final point for anyone who’s seen it: the character of Tom. Is he supposed to remind me so strongly of Of Mice and Men’s Lenny? His narrative arc almost has shades of Lenny’s as well.