Review by Daz Gale
An Oscar-winning actor, a director and a playwright walk into a room… No, that’s not the start of a joke – that’s the premise of Ulster American which looks set to disrupt theatre lover’s lists of favourite shows of the year so close to Christmas. You may think with little more than two weeks left of the year, you would know what your favourite play of the year is by now. That is, of course, unless you have taken in to consideration a play which boasts not just one Hollywood A-lister, but two, and not in the West End as you might have expect, but instead at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith where this new production has now opened for a limited 8 week season. But would it be enough to make us toast a “Cheers” or would it leave us hungry for more?*
*This concludes the puns of TV shows and movies starring Woody Harrelson portion of the review.
David Ireland’s play received a world premiere at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2018 where it enjoyed a critically acclaimed run. It now heads to London in a brand new production helmed by a star cast. Ulster American sees Oscar-winning American actor Jay Conway (Woody Harrelson), English director Leigh Carver (Andy Serkis) and Northern Irish playwright Ruth Davenport (Louisa Harland) get together as they prepare to begin rehearsals for a new play. What starts as a seemingly inoffensive get-together soon turns in to anything but as power, culture, identity, misogyny and some truly disturbing themes all rear their heads over the course of one night as the whole affair turns into chaos and threatens not just the survival of the play but perhaps even their own careers.
From the opening minute of the show, you get the sense you are about to watch something special. As the first two characters appear, David Ireland’s incredibly impressive writing is quickly thrown to the surface, giving the first riotous laugh instantly. From then on, the laughs don’t stop in this wickedly and darkly funny story. David very clearly has a knack for a punchline which leaves to a hit rate most comedies could only dream of. Even more impressively, all of the writing boasts an intelligence behind it with no lines shoehorned in for throwaway purposes, all serving their own purpose. Fairly volatile in writing structure, you may still be laughing from the last joke when you interrupt yourself with a gasp, a cringe, or even a scream at some of the shocking lines and occurrences that intersperse proceedings. In the hands of another writer, this uncertain and unpredictable change in tone may prove jarring but that isn’t a problem here in the slightest, such is the sensational nature of his writing.
The quality of David Ireland’s writing extends to the characters and how fleshed out they are. Three very different individuals from three different walks of life all with different values, beliefs and lived experiences. Not only do these characters complement each other with their variety, they all feel authentic to themselves with certain traits that may be recognisable to some. Preconceptions over one or all of the characters may prove unfounded as their true natures become apparent leading to some startling revelations, again a testament to the flawless writing. It is worth advising that some of the themes spoken about at length are not for the faint-hearted and may prove uncomfortable to some. Frank and unsavoury discussions of sexual assault, racism, and a woman’s place in the entertainment industry all form the heart of the show. What makes these themes all the more powerful and thought-provoking is in the way the characters argue their own reasonings in very balanced conversations even when they do spiral out of control. A perfect example of this are two male characters debating the merits of the Bechdel test… without a woman present. The show also features an endless tirade of digs at theatre critics which I have to admit had me howling with laughter (as I embarrassingly scribbled notes) though who knows if everyone present at press night saw the funny side?
If David Ireland’s writing is fantastic in its own right, Jeremy Herrin maximises it to its full potential thanks to ingenious direction. With the canvas of Max Jomes’ brilliantly realised set design, full of details of Leigh’s home, Jeremy gives the cast of three plenty to play with as the words are lifted through inspired choices. Whether it is the way Woody Harrelson’s Jay moves around the stage or Andy Serkis’ Leigh’s ever-changing delivery as he gradually pours more wine, there is no shortage of aspects to be amazed by in direction that never puts a foot wrong. As ever, I won’t spoil key moments in a show but it’s fair to say the climactic sequence in Ulster American requires some staging, and boy does it deliver it with admirable precision.
The remarkable accomplished cast takes Ulster American to stratospheric new levels, all deserving feats in acting up there with the very best I have witnessed this year. Andy Serkis may be best known for his iconic role in The Lord of the Rings but he proves his versatility and immense skills as an actor in a note-perfect performance that increasingly deteriorates thanks to his ever-increasing inebriated state as well as the madness of the night’s events. What starts as a fairly well-together individual soon shows flaws in Leigh’s own character as Andy relishes the chance to flesh out the director's beliefs and how they may differ from how others perceive him.
Having to go up against two Hollywood A-listers may seem daunting but Louisa Harland more than rose to the occasion with her winning turn as Ruth Davenport. Displaying an effortless ability to sit back and let the other two dominate in moments while still stealing focus through her actions, Louisa wowed at every turn in a captivating and complex portrayal of an individual whose story threatened to take a back seat at the hands of her male co-stars. Louisa proved to be every bit as powerful as Ruth as she questioned why the men got to dictate her story and called out their toxic character traits, while still gladly displaying imperfections of her own.
While all three performances were as good as it gets, Woody Harrelson undoubtedly stole the show for me in his truly mesmerising turn as Jay Conway. A larger-than-life character demanded a big performance and Woody understood what he needed to do. Perfectly encapsulating the blissful ignorance, arrogance, and shocking nature of Jay, Woody made sure all eyes were always on him thanks in part to brilliantly detailed mannerisms, a unique way of moving around, and an unrivaled delivery of his lines which were decidedly Trump-esque at times, though this fits the character perfectly. Charming at times, and cruel at others, Woody delivered what for me may be the greatest character performance of the year in a role that needs to be seen to be believed.
When a show passes so suddenly, you lose all concept of time, that’s when you know it is something special. With no interval, 1 hour 45 minutes hurried by as I escaped into the madness of Ulster American completely. Make no mistakes, this is theatre at its very best. Powerful, thought-provoking. Gritty, raw, and unashamedly real, the ability it has to make you cry with laughter one moment and make your blood boil with rage the next showcase the phenomenal nature of the writing, made even better by inspired direction and what may well be the best cast you see in a play this year. Ulster American demands your attention and with a show as flawless as this, there is no way it is not going to get it. In the play, the trio talks about the show they are working on being critic-proof, and I think that meta-reference extends to the real world. I honestly couldn’t fault this play if I wanted to. I thought I knew what my favourite play of the year was before I saw this, now there is a strong last-minute contender for that title. Absolutely amazing in every sense, get yourself a ticket to see this work of art before it’s too late.
Ulster American plays at Riverside Studios until 28th January 2024. Tickets from http://ulsteramericanplay.com/.
Photos by Johan Persson