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No question about it, The Ferryman has been one of the smash hits of the year. With five-star reviews across the board, Jez Butterworth's play was destined to be a success with James Bond director Sam Mendes at the helm, and a stage debut from the great Paddy Considine.
As the play's West End transfer gets into full swing (producers have already announced an extension), we caught up with actor Conor MacNeill to chat about what it's been like to be part of the production.
Photo credit: Will Bremridge
The Ferryman has been received so well by everybody, and an extension of the show has just been announced. Has it felt like a bit of a whirlwind?
It’s difficult to find the right word to use to describe it. When it started, because it’s a brand new play, you don’t know whether the audience are going to like it or whether everything is working. Just because it seems like it is in the room doesn’t mean it will work with the audience. I think the response was breath-taking. It’s pretty incredible.
When you started working on the play, did you realise that this was going to be something special?
There were always moments when I thought we were on to something here. From the moment I first read the script, it was one of the most gripping things I’ve ever read. After the first read-through we knew there was something special about it. And obviously it's Jez [Butterworth, writer] and Sam [Mendes, director], so there were initial thoughts of “this is going to be good”. In rehearsals there were moments of acting when I thought to myself “Jesus, this is pretty spectacular”. Especially from Laura [Donnelly], Genevieve [O'Reilly] and Paddy [Considine]. But there’s always a slight element of doubt when you’re in the room.
You mention Paddy - it's his stage debut. What's he been like to work with?
It’s fascinating. I think, from watching him, the fact it’s his first stage role is baffling. He’s picked it up very quickly. It’s just incredible acting. With actors like Paddy, they’re so truthful and on it that they just know what to do. They pick things up from watching other people, like how to use their voice on stage. He’s just jumped in with both feet straight away.
For anyone yet to see the play, could you briefly let them know what it's about?
The Ferryman is this epic story of love, family and betrayal and is set in Northern Ireland in 1981 against the backdrop of the hunger strikes. It’s set at the Carney family home in rural Northern Ireland, and explores the implications of the politics at that period of time on family life.
And where does your character lie within that?
I play Diarmaid Corcoran; one of the family cousins who visits for the harvest feast. He’s a city boy coming down into the countryside. It highlights the real contrast between city and country life at that point in history.
There are some scenes in the play with quite a lot of people on stage, what are they like?
Those scenes are the best. There’s a particular scene in act two where there’s about 22 of us on stage at one time. They’re my favourite because we all get on so well and there’s something very powerful about standing on a stage with that many people because it rarely happens.
They say never work with kids and animals, but The Ferryman has both!?
Yeah, it’s the big no-no! The kids are more professional than most of the adults. They’re unbelievable. We have three groups and they’re all sensational. Not only are they great actors, but they’re lovely people, too. The animals can be a bit tricky at times. The goose in particular. But apart from that, they’re all fine. I don’t have to deal with them really, it’s John Hodgkinson who’s the master animal wrangler.
When you were starting out, was acting always the plan or was it something you fell into?
I was about 14 when I started because there was a theatre company near me. They asked me to an open audition; they were looking for kids who played music and I played a lot of traditional Irish music when I was younger. Then, when I was leaving school as I was doing my A-Levels, the same company asked me back to do a play. I did that, got an agent, got another job for that summer and then that was kind of it. I never looked back.
You've had quite an extensive screen career, have you picked up much advice from actors you've worked with?
You learn a lot from how different actors work, not necessarily specific pieces of advice. How Jamie Dornan conducts himself on set is incredible. He’s so charming and personal, but also really professional and he gets the job done. He handles himself in a really brilliant way. I think one really great piece of advice has been to take your job seriously, but don’t necessarily take yourself too seriously.
While you're working in London have you been able to keep up with the latest theatre?
I try my absolute best to. I saw Angels in America recently which is unbelievable, it really blew me way. I saw Woyzeck because a friend was in it. When you work with mates who work in theatre, you’re constantly going to shows. But the only negative thing of being in The Ferryman is that there are great plays you can’t see, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Girl From the North Country.
But you’re in one of the best plays at the moment anyway…
You've dabbled in writing here and there, is that something you're going to pursue throughout your career?
I’ve had a feature film in development for maybe three years, and I’m in the process of developing a few more projects. I think it’s something I’ll be doing in the future. I’ve never attempted to write a play before so I’m not sure if I can. I was having a conversation the other day so see if maybe it was something I can do, but I don’t know if I’d be any good.
We've mentioned that acting was something you kind of fell into, but do you have a plan now?
I probably did when I was younger, but I’m really proud of the work I’m doing now. As long as I keep working and it is quality work. The goal is to keep working on really good scripts. I don’t really have aims of ‘being here or there’ or working with a particular person. Working on really interesting characters is what I want to carry on doing.
The Ferryman tickets are available now. The play is booking at the Gielgud Theatre until Saturday, 6 January, 2018.