'Ulster American' review – Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland fully inhabit this savage, anarchic satire

Read our three-star review of Ulster American, directed by Jeremy Herrin, now in performances at the Riverside Studios to 27 January.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

There’s wild and then there’s Ulster American, a sustained provocation of a play from Belfast writer David Ireland that has arrived Off West End some five years after storming the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where I first saw it.

This production, far starrier than its predecessor, is splendidly acted by all concerned, starting with film star Woody Harrelson, here marking his third London stage appearance in 21 years. Let’s just hope he’s having a happier time this go-round than he apparently did in 2005 in The Night of the Iguana – an experience, he notes in a first-person programme bio, that was “particularly unsatisfying”.

There’s certainly no faulting Harrelson or colleagues Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland, all of whom fully inhabit the play’s freefall from satire to something deeply savage. At a time when people watch their language more than ever, Ireland knows how to wound with words. I’ve rarely heard laughter in the theatre so regularly punctuated by gasps.

I’m still of the opinion that the character revelations are often gerrymandered for effect: quite a few of the twists across Jeremy Herrin’s pacey, interval-free production have to be taken on faith. But if you’re going to brave the gruesome funfair into which Ireland and co. plunge an audience head-first, you could hardly be in better hands.

Harrelson knows both his castmates of old, which surely accounts for the ease with which he inhabits Jay Conway, an Oscar-winning actor who has come to the home of an English theatre director, Leigh (Serkis, spot-on), to discuss a play written by a younger Northern Irish woman, Ruth (Harland, from TV’s Derry Girls).

While idle fantasies are floated of a Tony Award for this show in Jay’s future, the reality is rather more rough. It seems, amongst other things, that Jay has entirely misunderstood the role he is contracted to play. The accent is troublesome to start with, not to mention pronunciation of the word “Fenian”, and when it turns out that Ruth isn’t quite the voice of Irish liberalism he and Leigh had assumed, an Academy Award turns out not to be a badge of honour but a lethal weapon.

An astonishingly limber 62, Harrelson comes at his part with both vocal and physical elan, doing handstands one minute, upending his body on a sofa on Max Jones's wide-angle set the next.

Having turned down James Cameron, we’re told, in order to do Ruth’s play, Jay is forced to reassess this career move in the presence of the immovable firebrand the take-no-prisoners Ruth turns out to be.

She, in turn, steps into this male lair bringing with her deep-seated mother issues that help detonate an already-explosive plot, and Harland, who will work with Herrin again next spring in his new West End revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, wears Ruth’s strength of character like a shield that simply will not budge.

Serkis, too-long absent from the London stage, is in superlative form as well, playing the peacekeeper of the three who gets a joke about Simon Russell Beale that rivals a separate, far-ruder nod towards Liza Minnelli as the name-check of the night.

A master of timing, Serkis lets a pause linger in the air before delivering the single word, “Thatcher”, to a tumultuous response. That forms part of a notional discussion about whom these two men might rape, were a gun put to their heads, that is of a piece with discourse that ricochets from an initial discussion about “the N-word” alongside such comparative trivialities as whether “heartbreaking” is one word or two.

One senses additions to the script since its Scottish premiere. References to King Charles and intersectionality chime with the present as, alas, does the roiling fury that comes with Ruth’s need constantly to explain to the two men the fact that she is British even though she may speak with an Irish accent.

And if you sometimes query the logic by which a play that references Quentin Tarantino ends up imbibing his anarchic spirit, you have to credit a trio of performers who make every moment, however dubious, a matter of life or death.

Ulster American is at the Riverside Studios through 27 January. Book Ulster American tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Ulster American (Photo by Johan Persson)

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