Review: The River, Royal Court

“I’m not entirely sure what love is”

Despite being prepared for all kinds of brouhaha with the specially instituted booking system for The River, Jez Butterworth’s new play upstairs at the Royal Court – tickets only available on the day of performance, 30 in person and the rest online – when it came to it, I only had to refresh the website twice at 9am to get my tickets (I recommend logging into your account first) so hopefully, it may be less of a trial than might be currently considered. Butterworth’s last play here was the behemoth that became Jerusalem (and yes, I am one of the few people that wasn’t much of a fan…) but I did enjoy his more intimate Parlour Song for the Almeida and so expectations were at a nicely manageable level. 

Which is always a good place to be, especially when it enables one to fully appreciate a play free from too much baggage. For The River is a piece of gorgeously sensitive writing, utterly beguiling in its subtle deconstruction of the way we conduct ourselves in relationships -the facades erected, the lies told, the declarations made, the pasts conveniently ignored. An introspective look at what it means to be intimate with someone and the importance of honesty in conjunction with that, it combines the highly naturalistic world realised by Ultz with the almost magical, poetic language of Butterworth which swims with unknowing purpose, occasionally catching the light beautifully like the sea trout in the story, negotiating the swells of the river back to its spawning ground. 

Ian Rickson teases deliciously drawn performances from all of his cast. Dominic West has probably never been better as a deeply assured portrayal of modern masculinity, an easily bruised ego sitting easily alongside secure emotional honesty, yet all encaptured in a veil of uncertain mystery that is enthralling to watch. Miranda Raison exudes sensuality with a striking self-confidence but an almost self-flagellating directness and Laura Donnelly brings an alternative take, all intriguing allure and keen perceptiveness as Butterworth guides us through the ebbs and flows of the journey, though the water is never quite clear enough to see easily to the bottom.

A vein of rich humour keeps the mood often playful, yet never sacrificing the carefully constructed atmosphere of fluid intrigue that characterises so much of this production - there's a reason this review is relatively non-specific on details... On a more frivolous level, there are all sorts of details that would get the West End Whingers into quite a tizzle. Food preparation is taken to new levels (although I would have rinsed the leeks myself) and those of a squeamish nature might want to avert their eyes at one particular piscine moment and there’s a great switcheroo later on, though I hope resource management is ensuring nothing goes to waste.

Ultimately it is hard to credit exactly why the Royal Court have gone the route they did with The River. It has ensured an extra level of publicity for a show that doesn’t need it at all, no show upstairs here ever has problems selling, never mind one as eagerly anticipated as this. And attempting to justify it as needing to be in this particular theatre doesn’t work either, as the staging is relatively traditional and could easily fit in downstairs (in a way that say, Constellations and The Witness really played with the space). I was lucky that my booking experience was extremely painless so there wasn’t too much to live up to in that respect, but I do wonder if the woman who started queuing at 6.30am came away thinking it was worth it. 

I hope so, because The River is a play of luminous beauty, hauntingly affecting in its intimate surroundings and certainly worthy of (at least some of) the additional efforts necessary to secure a ticket. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval) 
Playtext cost: £3 
Booking until 17th November

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