Tag Archives: Reviews

The Ferryman, Broadway 2018

The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes, with a superb cast, opened on Broadway last night. The show just could be that rare commodity: a review-proof play. In almost 40 years of acting I have seldom seen audiences respond like they do for this one.

Rather being ‘on’ this production, than ‘in’ it, I considered it part of the job to read the reviews — something I try hard to avoid when actually appearing in a show — See previous blog post here.

And the reviews are spectacular. Across the board. Up to and including the mighty New York Times.

Theatrical history is full of contention between critics and actors — see for example Dame Diana Rigg’s amusing volume of collected reviews, No Turn Unstoned

Sir Nigel Hawthorne once took issue with a review of his production of the seldom-performed The Clandestine Marriage. (He directed and played the lead; I played a hedge. Yes, hedge, as applied to topiary, not to fund management). Nigel wrote a closely spaced four-page letter to a prominent theatre critic, with point by point analysis supporting his production choices. The critic in question conceded that perhaps he had been too hasty in his judgment. Too late! The damage had been done. The show closed prematurely.

It’s no secret that adverse reviews can close shows. I have witnessed at close hand the collapse of box office in several productions — each time, in my opinion, completely undeserved and a great shame, considering the work, talent and yes, money, that went into them.

You may wonder why I am taking the trouble to lay out this context, when in the present case there is, as far as I know, (again in my opinion) universal, absolutely earned, deserved, and appropriate high praise. There is a reason. But on this occasion I certainly have no quarrel with either critic or criticism.

The reviews, as I said, are raves across the board. In the Broadway landscape, The New York Times is a king-maker, and Ben Brantley, as senior critic there, is the most powerful. He’d already endorsed The Ferryman when he saw it in London last year, and his review of the Broadway production, published today, confirms what he said in 2017.

One usually doesn’t think of an actor reviewing a critic, (see here for an example).  I have taken issue with Mr Brantley’s view on several productions, as many theatre folk I know have done from time to time, but here I find his review to be accurate and excellent, and filling the highest function that theatrical criticism should: namely to elevate and preserve standards, and to inform and enrich the community it serves.

Well, that’s enough about that. A long way to say that The Ferryman is a hot ticket.

Looking at another part of the production, and now I disclose a fun technical detail which may come in handy should you (or I — as my present employment may at some point require) ever be called on to go on stage with a live goose tucked under one arm. No spoiler here, every review mentions the goose. And the rabbit. And the baby. Our goose is mostly well behaved and quite a hit with audiences. I do know though, from our wrangler, that if the goose were to get stressed, there is a chance that she might… well… what’s the word I want? — Evacuate. In projectile fashion. This is where the staging is crucial. Consider if the actor were angled even slightly down-stage. Well it hasn’t happened yet. But if you do chance to buy tickets, perhaps choose something beyond the very front row?

The Real Reason I Never Read Reviews

… Until the show is over.

Commonly, the reasons given are… because it makes you self-conscious, because it messes with your confidence, because you shouldn’t believe your own publicity, and so on along those lines.

I believe I have the reviewer story to end them all. And even though this happened more than three decades ago, the memory is still painful. Here is the story:

It was my third job as a professional. I was cast as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, adapted from Charles Dickens’s novel. We were to open at the Birmingham Rep in the UK, play for a month, and then transfer to The Old Vic in London for the Christmas season.

Herbert Pocket is one of Dickens’s more agreeable creations; gentle, sensitive, but also energetic and enthusiastic. In the mid-20th century black and white film a young Alec Guinness plays him to a young John Mills as Pip.

img007

Ian McCurrach as Pip and me as Herbert Pocket. Great Expectations at The Old Vic in London a long time ago.

I was young. A young actor full of that same energy and enthusiasm as Herbert Pocket, and thrilled to have scored this gig. It was directed by a complicated man who projected his inner darkness upon his actors in a way I have rarely seen since.

This man, the director, who had also adapted this version of Great Expectations, was a fine exponent of the 101 ways a director can destroy an actor in the rehearsal room. From me, he demanded an instant performance. This happens when the director has little or no regard for process and is consumed with insecurity about what the final result will be.

If there was a positive in the episode it was where I began to assemble the director-proof kit that every actor should have in their back pocket. You only need it sometimes, but when you do, you better know where it is.

Somehow I managed to give the performance that the director seemed to want by day three of rehearsals. Fine, you might think. Not so. Why not? Because, and this is crucial, because I did not know how I did it.

To begin with it all went well. Herbert Pocket and I seemed made for each other and our scenes were funny and audiences liked them. Then, during the pre-London run and for reasons known only to himself, the director began to fire the actors at random at the rate of one a week. This quickly transformed a large happy company into a large unhappy company riven with suspicion and paranoia.

Then there came a day, as can so easily happen in comedy, when for no visible reason my stuff wasn’t funny and the scenes played like a lead balloon.

Some laughs are mercurial. They come, they go. If a laugh checks out during the run of a show, the best thing to do is relax. Gently experiment with nuances of delivery and focus, make sure you are playing the scene, not the comedy, and carry on. Did I do that?

No. I tried to make the scenes funny again. The harder I tried the less funny they were.

Meanwhile I had been in correspondence on another project with one of the critics on the London Times.

When we opened in London, the critic came to see the show. By this time the show, which had begun with promise, had become a lumbering Dickensian juggernaut, too long, too slow, performed by a company that knew it was involved in a disaster.

So the critic from the Times saw the show, which he loathed (with good reason). The review was one of the more scathing ever written and he singled me out for special condemnation. When I read it the next morning, hoping against all the probability that it would be positive, it was like a sledgehammer to my confidence, and I nearly gave up acting on the spot. That was bad enough but …

But here’s the thing; the critic from the Times saw the show, phoned in his copy, went home, and died in his sleep that night.

I wished the man no ill, but it did cross my mind to think, “If he was gonna die, why couldn’t he have died three hours earlier?”

And that, is the real reason I never read reviews.

And does that apply when the reviews are good?

You bet. There’s no surer way to mess up a performance than if you believe it when people tell you how good you are. “When Colin McPhillamy shakes the tea-pot, opens the sardines, and dances a jig on a pogo-stick, there is a delicate sunrise of joy that casts a gossamer spell over the stage.” – Oh yeah? And the odds are a hundred to one against Colin McPhillamy ever getting the moment right again.

So right now, I’m in a hit. And there are some great reviews – how do I know that? Because people say things like, “Hey, what about those great reviews?” And I say, “Don’t tell me!”

cripple1-300x228

Laura Turnbull as Kate and Beth Dimon as Eileen, me as Johnnypateenmike. Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo by Alicia Donelan.

I have not read them, and will not until after we close, but if you’re interested go here

And while I’m at it let me give a shout out to the amazing design team we had on this one; Franne Lee for costumes, Paul Black for lighting, Victor Becker for the set, and Steve Shapiro for sound. I should have mentioned them in previous posts about this play. Their work both singly and collectively was outstandingly exquisite. You can say I said so.

But what ever you do – don’t tell me!