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An Interview with Justin Edwards

The English actor and writer plays Tom Kettle in Jez Butterworth’s epic play The Ferryman.

Lauded as the play of the year in 2017, Jez Butterworth's play about a family of farmers touched by the political troubles in 1980' Northern Ireland was the fastest selling show in the history of the Royal Court Theatre. It has since transferred to the West End and is now on it's third cast.

London Calling: You joined the cast of The Ferryman two weeks ago, how are you settling in?
Justin Edwards: Pretty good. When you take over from a previous cast you have to hit the ground running. We didn’t have any previews, but we had a lot of rehearsal time and a few of the cast stayed on so that helped getting to a good stage where you feel you are ready to go on. The crew and stage management have been running the show for a few months now and they really know what they’re doing so that makes everything easier. It is an extraordinary play; well written, well-structured and it’s got a great following so it’s really good fun. And we have a lovely cast.
LC: There is a real sense of family on stage…
JE: It’s a very nice group of people playing a believable family unit. The children are fantastic. There’s three different casts as they can’t work every night so you never quiet know which ones you’re going to get, but they are all wonderful.
LC: Tell us about your character: Who is Tom Kettle and what is his role in the play?
JE: Tom is an outsider - he is the only Englishman, everyone else is Irish. No one quite knows where he’s come from, he just turned up as this lost child and was taken in by the family. While he is obviously not a Carney, he’s part of the family as he’s always just been there. He’s a good farm worker, he’s strong and good with animals. But then - without giving too much away - you realise some of the other things that are going on in his mind at the same time. It’s tricky because you don’t want to play someone with a learning disability in a too confused or simple manner. It has to be subtle.
LC: He starts off as a classic fool
JE: Yes, at the start you think he’s this oafish idiot but clearly, he is dangerous as well. Not in the same way as the IRA members are but as someone who is not really in control of his own actions.

Justin Edwards in the current cast of The Ferryman (c) Johan Persson

LC: All conversations on stage seem so spontaneous, as if you are eavesdropping on an actual family talking in their living room. The timing seems to be rehearsed to perfection. How do you get to that point?
JE: With a lot of rehearsal! The choreography, the way that Sam Mendes directed it, is quite extraordinary. There are a lot of people on stage all the time. In the opening scene when the whole family wakes up, the audience gets absolutely bombarded, you don’t know who all these people are coming downstairs and then the children come in, there’s a baby, there’s animals … it’s almost an assault on the senses. But it is an amazingly precise script. A lot of the feast scenes, when we are all around the table, is all choreographed down to the last movement, the dancing is spontaneous and yet not. It takes a lot of rehearsing and line running but once you got it set, it’s great! There is never a moment of silence on stage.
LC: Is it all scripted or is there room for improvisation?
JE: It’s all scripted. There’s is a bit of spontaneous cheering and dancing but no, its all very precisely scripted and incredibly well written. If you read the script, people talk over each other and argue. All of that has to be very well rehearsed.
LC: You know the old saying “never work with animals or children”…?
JE: But that’s what the audience loves. And the children are brilliant. They all hit their lines and marks at the right time so you always know where you are with them, where they’re going and what they’re doing.
LC: What’s it like having a bunny in your pocket?
JE: It’s unusual! But he’s very calm. All the animals are very well trained and well looked after backstage. I don’t know how they trained them but he’s an incredibly sweet rabbit. He seems pleased to see me every day. And he doesn’t get stage fright.
LC: How much awareness do you think is in England for the problems of Northern Ireland?
JE: I remember it growing up and I remember the hunger strike. I was 12 years old and I was living in southern England, so it felt like a very distant thing but obviously for the Irish cast members it’s very current still. Everyone from Northern Ireland had involvement with the troubles, you couldn’t avoid it, it touched everybody there. So I think it’s a very interesting play to be seen on a London stage because the British view of the troubles was obviously very different in the 80’s and it is fascinating to see it from this perspective. There are still people today who disappeared during the troubles and haven’t been found yet. Jez wrote the play based on his wife’s experience. Her uncle was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA and found 10 years later. One of the big themes at the heart of the play is the anguish you suffer every day of not knowing if someone is alive or dead. While there is obviously a great political strand to the play, it’s also about family and love and loss and friendship.
LC: It is making the political personal
JE: Quinn is the head of the family and he has turned his back on the political side of it, even though he was clearly at one stage very heavily involved with the IRA. Now he just wants to raise a family and to put all this behind him, but of course it comes back to haunts him.
LC: The play is very emotionally intense and it runs for over 3 hours. What is the hardest part about that?
JE: It is long and obviously the end is very shocking. You are left wondering how their life will go on after these horrible events. For me, I am trying hard to do a sympathetic portrayal of someone who isn’t actually that sympathetic. Caitlin and Quinn are huge parts with a massive journey to go on every night so they work very hard. I get time off stage a least!
LC: You are a writer yourself; do you have any projects coming up?
JE: I have written a lot for radio, children’s television and sitcoms.
There is a children’s novel I’m hoping to adapt into a screenplay with a writer friend. I might take a show to the Edinburgh festival this year, I’ve done that in the past and it’s always good fun. The trouble with this play is it is taking over your life a little bit! I feel like I am living in an Irish farmhouse at the moment.

LC: You probably don’t have much time, but what have you seen recently in London?
JE: I do try to see a lot of theatre. Beginnings is very good, it just started at the Ambassador Theater. I would really like to see The Exorcist, it sounds fascinating. And I am excited about Sam Mendes directing the Lehmann Brothers drama at the National Theatre. At the moment, while I am in this show, I don’t get to see any theatre, so I am catching up on a lot of television drama: National Treasure, Derrygirls and The Crown on Netflix.
The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre and is booking until 19 May.