Theater Review: ‘The River’

An intimate journey of an empty soul
November 28, 2014 Updated: December 2, 2014

NEW YORK—Playwright Jez Butterworth takes the audience through one man’s Möbius strip of a life in his involving story The River, now at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre.

The Man (Hugh Jackman) invites his new girlfriend (Cush Jumbo) to his cabin, located on a cliff above a river, for a getaway that includes a bit of romance and lots of fishing. Fishing is not simply a pastime for The Man, but more a fervent religion.

He’s spent hours teaching The Woman how to cast a line, tie a knot, and choose the best lures to use. It’s not long before the two get into a tiff over priorities. She is more interested in watching the sunset, while he’s more concerned about fishing preparations—particularly since sea trout will be running on this quiet moonless night.

When The Man comes back from his fishing expedition, he immediately calls the police in panic. The woman who went with him has vanished in the dark. Fortunately, his concern is allayed moments later when he hears her calling to him. However, when the owner of the voice comes into view, it belongs to a completely different woman (Laura Donnelly) than the one seen moments before.

Hugh Jackman plays a man obsessed with fishing, and Cush Jumbo plays his new girlfriend in
Hugh Jackman plays a man obsessed with fishing, and Cush Jumbo plays his new girlfriend in “The River.” (Richard Termine)

As the evening progresses, the Man interacts first with one woman, then the other. The ladies are never on stage together but rather enter and exit the story at different points. Each easily picks up the narrative of the one who came before.

This then begs the question, what happened to the first woman and which of them actually is the first woman? Just because one is the “new girlfriend” does not necessarily put things in chronological order.

What Butterworth appears to be trying to convey is the feeling of an endless cycle. People continually relive what has come before until they’ve learned enough to be able to move forward.

It soon becomes evident that The Man, while desperate for emotional companionship, is apparently incapable of anything more than surface love. Both ladies describe moments of physical intimacy with him where he sort of freezes and goes somewhere else in his mind, despite his telling both women that he loves them.

Further complicating things are certain questions The Man refuses to answer: How many women has he brought to the cabin previously? Who does the dress that’s hanging in the closet belong to? Who is the woman in a discovered picture with her face scratched out?

More than a mystery, The River amounts to an immersive theatrical experience. Seeing the set of the cabin exterior, a perfect compliment to the venue’s in-the-round seating, one feels the quiet on all sides and the oppressive darkness throughout.

The text is also full of lyrical images and potential clues as to what the story actually means. Butterworth deftly infuses his text with ironic humor, such as The Man’s fury at finding out that one of the women was able to hook a fish by using a Gummy Bear as bait. He feels this is a trick totally against the rules of fishing.

Jackman does a great job as a seemingly content wilderness sort, gutting and cleaning a fish for dinner. He’s also a man desperately waiting for something magical to happen. But he’s powerless to make things happen—either with the women he’s with or with his inability to catch a fish. He’s the only person present who seems unable to do so.

Also striking is how matter of fact he is about certain things, such as the way he describes a sunset, one he claims to have seen before.

The Man (Hugh Jackman) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) on a getaway weekend. (Richard Termine)
The Man (Hugh Jackman) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) on a getaway weekend. (Richard Termine)

Jumbo and Donnelly are both appealing in their roles. Each character seems happy yet somewhat cautious with this man, who is perhaps moving a bit too fast in terms of their relationship(s).

Jumbo is very good as the new girlfriend, her argument with The Man showing a classic situation where one person is interested in living in the moment, while the other is more concerned with something in the future.

Donnelly does well in making her character the more outgoing of the two women. She comes across as more at ease and open, as if she doesn’t have as much emotional baggage to deal with in regard to The Man.

Ian Rickson’s direction is flawless. The transitions between the different scenes are handled seamlessly without any hint of something unusual happening. It also helps that the overall tension is built up slowly with nothing feeling phony or rushed.

Helping to add to the atmosphere is the aforementioned set, designed by Ultz, which gives the proceeding a rustic and isolated feel. Lighting by Charles Balfour is wonderfully atmospheric.

The River is a compelling tale of one man trying to recapture something very special that he’s lost. For additional insight, one is advised to pay particular attention to the poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by W.B. Yeats, offered as an insert in the show’s program.

Also in the company are Jessica Love and Kerry Warren.


‘The River’
Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W. 50th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200, 800-447-7400, or
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: Feb. 8, 2015

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.