Neil Dowden in west London
20 December 2023
Riverside Studios have a hot ticket (with a top price of £175, surely a record for an off-West End play!) for their near-sell-out run of David Ireland’s satirical dark comedy Ulster American – undoubtedly due to the pulling power of its celebrated cast. It marks a welcome return to the stage for film stars Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis (both after about 20 years), while Louisa Harland (best known for Derry Girls on TV) was last seen in Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre earlier this year. With Harrelson having worked with the other two before, there seems to be a natural chemistry between them exploited to the max in Jeremy Herrin’s irresistibly entertaining production that rides the play’s provocative content.
Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland and Andy Serkis.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
The pitch-black, near-the-knuckle humour of Northern Irish playwright Ireland (author of the even more controversial Cyprus Avenue, 2016) has been compared to that of Martin McDonagh (who has also dipped his toe into the Troubles). Harrelson – who has appeared in a couple of McDonagh’s films – is here perfectly cast as a narcissistic Hollywood star seeking theatrical kudos by performing in a new, hot-button play that goes disastrously wrong after an epic falling out between him, the male English director, and the female Northern Irish author. Ulster American (premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018) hilariously skewers the vanity, pretentiousness, selfishness, and hypocrisy of people in the entertainment industry, in particular an underlying misogyny.
American A-lister Jay Conway comes to the UK to play the lead in a show he mistakenly thinks glorifies a Catholic Irishman fighting for freedom against colonial Britain, chiming with his own mythologized Irish roots. He is humoured by London director Leigh Carver who does not want to upset the star who can raise the profile of his theatre. But when writer Ruth Davenport – from a hardline Ulster Protestant background – finds out they want to rewrite her play all hell breaks loose during a pre-rehearsals meeting at Carver’s home (handsomely presented in Max Jones’s extensive set adorned with theatre posters).
All of the characters put their egocentric ambitions before any professed principles. The New Agey and self-declared feminist Conway may say “It would kill me to offend you” but he is obsessed with the use of the “N-word”, as well as with imaginary rape scenarios – in which Carter reluctantly joins in. Amidst this perverted male fantasy Davenport arrives – having left her mother seriously injured in hospital after a car accident – initially star-struck by Conway and excited that he has mentioned her to Tarantino, but then resolutely refusing to be manipulated by him and Carver into changing the loyalties of her protagonist. And she threatens to expose their rape talk on social media unless they agree to her demands.
Louisa Harland, Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
The play has much fun mocking the unconscious and conscious biases around cultural identity, including Conway’s ignorant conflation of Northern Ireland with Ireland and Carver’s indifference to Northern Ireland being part of the UK. The tone moves from satire to farce later on as the situation becomes more extreme stretching credulity, and hostility turns to violence. There’s no doubt some people will find some of the jokes offensive, and that Ireland sometimes employs shock tactics – whether this is regarded as gratuitous, or to jolt the audience out of complacency, or a mixture of both, will depend on individual responses.
Harrelson makes a spectacular stage comeback as the garishly dressed Conway. (He last trod the boards in 2005 in The Night of the Iguana in the West End, “a particularly unsatisfying experience that put me off theatre for 18 years” – though he has been involved in writing and directing for the theatre in North America since then.) It’s an extremely funny, technically adroit, and physically agile performance – including yoga postures and handstands – which also has an edgy unpredictability. He makes much comic business out of declaiming lines in an outlandish Oirish accent and trying on eye patches to get into character. But Harrelson clearly shows us a man who affects collaborative congeniality yet – carrying his Oscar statuette around with him – is prepared to use his power in the business to get what he wants.
Andy Serkis (who last appeared on stage as Iago at the Royal Exchange, Manchester in 2002) is also excellent as the normally politely restrained Carver, who reveals seriously unpleasant attitudes beneath his veneer of civilized artistry. He gets big laughs as his nervous efforts to act as peacemaker between Conway and Davenport spiral out of control as he gulps down ever larger glasses of red wine, ranting about the evils of Brexit and making pretentious claims about the importance of theatre.
And Louisa Harland more than holds her own as the strong-willed, sardonic Davenport. She is determined not just to stand her ground against the two older men’s entitled attempts at interfering with her play, but to use their private indiscretions to her advantage in today’s cancel culture – of which this taboo-breaking play is an implicit condemnation.