Stuart King

Review: ULSTER AMERICAN at Riverside Studios

West London was awash with celebs for Wednesday evening’s opening of David Ireland’s comedy drama ULSTER AMERICAN which premiered at Riverside Studios Hammersmith, to a universally rapturous ovation from the enthralled audience… but what will critics make of it (especially when they were repeatedly disparaged during several actor-y onslaughts)?

Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) and Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan PerssonWoody Harrelson (Jay Conway) and Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan Persson

Let’s start by saying that this reviewer had an absolute ball at tonight’s press night and suspects that most other seasoned reviewers will have done so too, not to mention anybody who was lucky enough to secure a ticket when the box office first opened.

An American film actor Jay Conway (Woody Harrelson) has come to London to begin rehearsals for a new and visceral Irish play written by Ruth Davenport (Louisa Harland) to be directed by Leigh Carver (Andy Serkis). As they await the arrival of the playwright, director and actor begin to build rapport by sharing opinions of life, motivations and even entertaining consideration of whether an eyepatch would suit the violent lead character! As an exercise in theatre of the absurd the piece engenders the squirmy, suppressed ickiness of any situation where a person’s perceived reputational-superiority (here, film star status) falls short in reality. Jay’s immature understanding of worldly matters juxtaposed with the requirement to pervade an air of arty-intellectualism, is both amusingly gauche and exasperating. Meanwhile, Leigh’s capacity to patiently tolerate his star’s artifice and mildly entertain his more absurd and inappropriate topics of conversation, is skin-crawlingly funny from the outset. But it is when Ruth’s vibrancy enters into the mix that the combination combusts — first by stoking flirtation, then dumbfounded confusion, irritation and finally utter contempt and chaos.

Whilst the comedy elements are given full rein, it is the restrained awkwardness of the early stages which set the foundations upon which the subsequent mayhem builds. Along the way, many and varied taboos are touched upon — some of which are downright wince-inducing, including a warped justification for violating the late Princess Diana to render her even more effective at doing good deeds! As niceties give way to unsurpassed contempt the men can think only of their careers and reputations when threatened by a young woman’s savvy deployment of modern communications. The real question is, will there be any winners?

The play will challenge and upset anyone whose status closely approximates to snowflake, but perhaps that’s the point, and it’s certainly entreatingly well-made.