‘It will be 3 hours and 20 minutes with one interval and a short pause’ the staff member warns me as I receive my copy of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. It is thicker than the notebook I brought. I thank him with a slightly worried smile, not yet knowing that these 3 hours and 20 minutes will go by in the blink of an eye.

Butterworth returns to the Royal Court, the home of many of his well-acclaimed plays. Mojo, The Night Heron and Jerusalem were all born here, and the foyer is buzzing with anticipation – excited, but assured. The production has already secured a West End transfer and has Sam Mendes at the helm, which is why it is no wonder it became the fastest selling show in the history of the Royal Court.

The year is 1981 in Armagh, Northern Ireland. We see an idyllic picture of the Carney family preparing for the annual harvest. We quickly learn, however, that things are far from perfect: the head of the family, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) used to be an IRA activist, and his brother went missing 10 years ago. His sister-in-law, Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin, lives in this home with his family and her son. She is the heart of the house: always busy in the kitchen, taking care of all the children as her own. It is an odd dynamic, especially on the occasions when Quinn’s wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) comes downstairs and witnesses how well Caitlin has taken her place. Things get even more difficult when Caitlin and Quinn receive news that Caitlin’s husband has finally been found dead. The following scenes show how these characters deal with loss, untold love and defining and fighting for justice.

The production is, in every way, extravagant. Rob Howell’s set is bursting with detail, presenting a house that is full of memories and signs of living; there are 21 characters including a small baby with exceptional stage presence; live rabbits and a goose get some stage-time; and nearly everyone gets time to shine with a monologue or a captivating scene, as with three acts the play is in no hurry. And yet the story remains captivating and clear even remaining relatable to audience members (such as this reviewer) who are not very familiar with the events of The Troubles. The script is deliciously anecdotal, sparkling with humour and it succeeds at painting detailed portraits of well-rounded characters.

The ensemble fizzes with chemistry; uncle Pat and aunt Pat played by Des McAleer and Dearbhla Molloy both manoeuvre expertly between witty humour and heavy tragedy; Niall Wright and Fra Free as the eldest Carney boys bring great energy to every scene; Tom Glynn-Carney is explosive as the fanatic Shane; and the younger members of the Carney family might be performed by the best child actors I have seen in a long while on stage. However, the most striking performances are John Hodgkinson playing the peculiar Tom Kettle, an Englishman with ‘unhurried’ wit, and Donnelly as Caitlin, a woman who needs to keep a delicate balance between being a strong mother and having intense feelings for her brother-in-law. The scene these two share, in which Tom Kettle proposes to Caitlin is probably one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the play, accompanied by the audible gasps and awws from the audience.

The lively ensemble, the subtle changes in Peter Mumford’s lighting and Nick Powell’s sounds that are so light and soft you barely notice them and Mendes’ firm, focused grasp on the narrative’s gradually growing pressure makes this new Butterworth play so engaging you won’t check your watch once.

The Ferryman is playing at the Royal Court until May 20, it transfers to the West End later in the year.

Photo: Johan Persson