Ulster American, Riverside Studios, 2023
Photo: Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Recommended


Ulster American

3 out of 5 stars

The phenomenal cast of Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland are often savagely funny, but the constant rape jokes are just too much


Time Out says

Northern Irish playwright David Ireland has been inching his way towards the big time for years, but still feels like a cult proposition - mostly because his scabrous satires are, on the whole, a bit much for polite company.

But if it’s not technically in the West End, things don’t get much starrier than this revival of Ireland’s modestly successful 2018 satire ‘Ulster American’, which has tempted screen legends Woody Harrellson and Andy Serkis back to the stage for the first time in aeons, where they’re joined by ‘Derry Girls’ star Louisa Harland.

Ireland’s play is a simultaneously brilliant and infuriating social satire, which revolves around huge American star Jay (Harrelson), who is due to star in a play by Northern Irish writer Ruth, directed by Englishman Leigh (Serkis).

What the play is truly wonderful at is skewering the incomprehension of Northern Ireland by both the English and Americans.

Harrelson’s Jay is an Irish American who believes he’s set to star in a play about Irish resistance to the British – and is dumbfounded when Ruth explains to him that his Northern Irish character is British and that she is also British. Leigh, looking to appease Jay but also clearly voicing the feelings of many inhabitants of Great Britain, plays down Ruth’s Britishness, pulling ‘help me out’ and ‘you’re being unreasonable’ faces at her as he tries to insinuate she’s Irish in order to appease his leading man. 

Where the original production went about all this in fairly unsubtle fashion, Herrin’s is beautifully weighted, with his stars really digging into the material. Harrelson is superb as Jay – not just your run-of-the-mill dumb Yank, but a man whose stardom has shielded him from both knowledge of the world and social norms. The fact he’s not a Trump-like ugly American, but rather a coddled innocent out of his depth, makes it all the funnier when he tries to process all this wild new information. 

Serkis is great too: his Leigh is a kind of pathological people pleaser who is clearly dying inside for most of the story – and drinking prodigiously – but still able to contort himself into all sorts of moral shapes to keep Jay on board. 

And lesser-known cast member Harland more than holds her own as Ruth, whose initial bubbly excitement to be working with Jay gives way to an insouciant intransigence. His increasingly shrill demands for deference simply encourage her to dig her heels in and resist any and all of his requests to change the script.

A superb cast and director, but as with the original production, I struggled with the proportion of the play that hinges on rape jokes. Essentially lacking normal social skills, Jay asks Leigh which famous person he’d rape if a gun was put to his head. An uncomfortable Leigh eventually spits out an answer after Jay seems to get into a sulk at his initial refusal to answer. It all comes back to bite them horribly. 

Ireland is obviously sending up the hypocrisy of what nice liberal men talk about behind closed doors. But I just can’t get away from the sense he’s basically doing all this to be shocking, and that there’s something troubling about hearing an audience dutifully laugh at these gags. It feels a bit edgelord, really – I don’t think rape should be a taboo subject if handled smartly, but whatever hypocrisies he may be exposing, Ireland clearly intends it to be funny, and bits of the script have the air of a teenage boy shouting out obscenities on ‘Call of Duty’ in the hope somebody will notice him. 

Ultimately, Ireland aims to offend, and I was somewhat offended, job done (I did enjoy the jokes about how much they all hate theatre critics). I suppose that’s how you stay a cult artist. Plus, it you’re going to be subjected to wearying gags about sexual assault, it might as well be from that nice Woody Harrelson!


£30-£175. Runs 1hr 30min
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