Eye on Broadway: The Ferryman, Girl From the North Country, Our Ladies
Now playing on London's West End, these three new plays and one "Bat Out of Hell" seem destined for the bright lights of New York City.
Marianne Elliot's spectacular revival of Tony Kushner's masterpiece Angels in America is currently running at the National Theatre on the South Bank and being beamed to cinemas around the world in its entirety. Across the Thames at the stately Palace Theatre, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is wowing audiences with its blend of astonishing theatrical magic and vivid emotional depth. Both Angels and Cursed Child have upwards of three dozen characters and are told in two parts, with more than standard running times (the former is roughly eight hours, the latter around five). Similarly, they're both on track for Broadway. While Angels is still speculative at this point, Harry Potter will see his name in lights at the Lyric Theatre with an opening date set for April 22, 2018.
Yet these are not the only epic West End shows that very likely have Broadway in their sights. Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan's play with music Girl From the North Country, and Lee Hall's Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour all seem destined for the New York stage. So too does a new musical inspired by Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell albums. While these shows only last a single evening, each one defines its own terms about the ways large-scale stories can be told within the practical limitations of theater.
Butterworth's three-hour, 15-minute The Ferryman, at first resembles a particularly bleak lost episode of Full House. Multiple generations of a family populate this haunting new drama, set in a cramped but homey farmhouse in 1981 Northern Ireland, a central time and place during what's now known as "The Troubles." Over the course of the work, Butterworth introduces 24 characters, including four young children, a (real) 9-month-old baby, a live rabbit, and a live goose.
As the play begins, the body of Seamus Carney, a member of the Irish Republican Army who disappeared 10 years earlier, has been found in a bog, a bullet through his skull. While this manages to bring some closure to his family — namely brother Quinn (Paddy Considine), a former I.R.A. activist turned farmer, and widow Caitlin (Laura Donnelly, a veteran of Butterworth's The River) — it also comes with a price. Into the lives of this sprawling family that's about to celebrate the yearly harvest floats walks Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), a quietly menacing I.R.A. leader who dredges up old tensions among them all.
With designers Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Peter Mumford (lighting), Butterworth and director Sam Mendes conjure a very specific milieu in extraordinary detail: each character's outfits spell out their function (Muldoon dons a leather jacket, Quinn hangs around in farmer attire); long nights disappear as daylight seeps in through the windows. The rich set manages to hold each person and somehow not burst. More remarkably, Butterworth has crafted 21 speaking roles that brim with authenticity, capped off with Mendes's tense direction. Most enthralling is Considine, a film actor making his stage debut, whose beautifully slow boil of a performance ends up blowing the lid off the pot.
Less successful is Girl From the North Country, the Old Vic's world premiere of a new play McPherson (The Seafarer) with music by 11-time Grammy and 2016 Noble Prize winner Bob Dylan, who approved McPherson's story treatment and sent him a box of 40 albums with permission to use any song however McPherson wanted. The wandering soul of the singer-songwriter's massive oeuvre permeates the piece, which is set at a failing boarding house in 1934 Duluth.
Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) runs a small hotel that has been passed down through generations. Now, in the throes of the Depression, it's on the cusp of being foreclosed upon. His wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), suffers from early onset dementia. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an alcoholic. Their adopted, African-American daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), is unmarried and pregnant. In the wee small hours one evening, a Bible-selling preacher (Michael Shaeffer) and a black boxer just out of prison (Arinzé Kene) show up looking for lodging. As they integrate themselves into the lives of the Laine family and their close friends and tenants, things quickly spiral even more out of Nick's control.
Most of the song choices are particularly adroit: giving "Like a Rolling Stone" to a character with dementia is surprisingly moving, especially as Henderson performs it. In fact, the piece only really comes to life when the cast members are singing Dylan's song, which are used solely to comment on the storytelling. Otherwise, McPherson has a hard time giving each of the 13 characters his or her due, and only Tony winner Jim Norton (The Seafarer) really manages to find an emotional depth in his ancillary role. The listlessness of McPherson's direction, combined with the negative space of Rae Smith's set and Mark Henderson's lighting, don't help.
An epic journey takes place in Lee Hall's Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a new play adapted from Alan Warner's novel The Sopranos, directed by Vicky Featherstone. Six actresses play dozens of characters in this uplifting comedy, which follows a septet of Scottish high school choir members on the road to a competition in Edinburgh. As the rowdy, foulmouthed crew parties it up as they travel, each has a deep coming of age moment that will affect the course of their lives.
This delightful piece also features songs interspersed throughout, a mixture of classical choral fare by the likes of Mendelssohn and Bach to (mostly) the pop hits of Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra. Admittedly, the play is hard to follow at times — on top of their thick Scottish dialects, the actors switch between characters — but when performers Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Isis Hainsworth, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann, and Dawn Sievewright raise their voices in unison to deliver tunes ranging from "Agnus Dei" to "Don't Bring Me Down," it's astonishingly moving and worth the price of admission.
Less moving — more stupefying — is Bat Out of Hell, a new musical featuring a book by legendary pop songwriter Jim Steinman and the hits of his Meat Loaf collaborations of the same title. Filling the void on the West End now that "We Will Rock You" has closed, this three-plus-hour long dystopian musical is epically difficult to follow, though at certain points it tells the story of a group of rowdy youths who never grow up past the age of 18, and the Trumpian mega-businessman who destroyed the world.
No expense has been spared in this production. Motorcycles glide back and forth, towering video screens present alternate views of the action, and a convertible car is driven straight into the orchestra pit after a hypersexual performance of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Jay Scheib's massive staging is next on tap for Toronto this winter, and a New York mounting is probably not too far behind — hopefully, they'll pick up a dramaturg along the way. Whatever happens, it would be advisable to keep magnetic leading man Andrew Polec — an American whose only major credit is off-Broadway's The Fantasticks — front and center for a lot longer than he is in this current version. It's a true star-is-born performance, and his rendition of the title number is as epic as it gets.