The Big Fellah

It’s very easy to get politics wrong in plays, and the road to failure is paved with good intentions. The desire to make a point, to comment on a situation, can result in the ditching of characterisation and plot in favour of something that comes across as simplistic or naive on stage. Sometimes a writer, however well-meaning, only succeeds in demonstrating the limits of his political grasp when haranguing an audience.

It’s safe to say that this is not a trap that Richard Bean falls into with his impressive new play, The Big Fellah, about the relationship between Irish Republicanism and Irish Americans, which is currently showing at the Lyric Hammersmith. In place of pious polemic is a witty, compassionate but always clear-sighted exploration of the circumstances, motives and needs that can lead people to commit terrible acts.

New Yorker and trainee fireman Michael Doyle, who we first meet in 1972, lives in an apartment adorned with archetypal Americana – a baseball cap, a Jimi Hendrix poster, a New York Knicks banner and a guitar nailed to the wall. The musical instrument that can’t be played is the object of a running gag throughout the play (one with a violent pay-off) and is perfect for the dim Doyle, who is incapable of judging or valuing anything other than by superficialities.

Obsessed with his Irish ancestry and romantic notions of freedom fighting, he has been recruited by David Costello, the ‘Big Fellah’, and consented to his apartment being used as a safe house for wisecracking IRA killer and fugitive Ruairi O’Drisceoil. The play charts the fallout from this decision, setting the increasingly fractured relations between Doyle, Costello and Drisceoil against a backdrop of 30 years of in-fighting and factionalism within the Irish Republican movement, the growth of Irish nationalism and tension over US foreign policy towards Irish independence.

The Big Fellah is ostensibly about The Troubles but it is also a dissection of the American Dream and its conflation of capitalism and moral obligation. Costello’s first speech to the St Patrick’s Day parade dinner crowd – which we, the audience, stand in for – compares Irish emancipation with civil rights for blacks and ends with a request for cheques from ‘the blessed sons of Ireland in America’ to fund the buying of arms. For this self-confessed patriot, no cost (in every sense of the word) is too great in the battle for freedom.

As the play progresses, however, Costello comes to the realisation that his ‘war’ – romanticised over time and distance – has become (and may always have been) a brutal, ugly struggle that has served multiple agendas and interests and resulted in the pointless deaths of many innocent people. He has co-opted the fight for Irish independence to serve the fantasy of self-fulfilment he has bought into.

Director Max Stafford-Clark cleverly reinforces the stripping away of Costello’s illusions with the art exhibitions O’Drisceoil visits at regular intervals throughout the play. By the late eighties the abstractions of Mondrian have been superseded by a piece of brickwork framed against a brick wall – there is no longer any greater meaning to be found.

Finbar Lynch is excellent as Costello, carefully peeling away the character’s layers of slick, hard-edged urbanity to reveal the pride and vulnerability beneath the surface. He delivers his final speech to the St Patrick’s Day parade crowd in 1999 with a weariness and quietness that is all the more powerful for its understatement.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, with only the occasional straying accent proving to be a problem. Rory Keenan almost steals the show as O’Drisceoil. He handles the gradual Americanisation of his character’s accent as confidently as his transition from horny, impetuous youth to married architect with a newly-minted conscience and guilt over his past and present involvement with the IRA. He and Youssef Kerkour as the lumbering cop and IRA member Tom Billy Coyle form an amusing double-act.

Humour is central to the play’s refusal to allow the audience to sit in comfortable judgement of the characters on stage; while we do laugh at them, we also laugh with them. It is the rapport implicit in sharing a joke that makes this play so powerful, and so unsettling. We may empathise with Tom Billy Coyle’s incredulity at the idea of stuffing detonators into toy rabbits – we may even smile at the incongruity. But, as we soon learn, these detonators are intended to trigger the car bomb that devastated Omagh, the County Town of Tyrone, on 15th August 1998.

Richard Bean and Max Stafford-Clark should be congratulated for having produced a play that challenges the audience’s complacency – one that does not shy away from difficult issues but refuses to give easy answers.

(At the Lyric Hammersmith, 21 September-16 October)

Reviewed for musicOMH