The Big Fellah at the Gaiety Theatre

October 24, 2013

There is an interesting play to be made about American support for the Irish Republican Army through NORAID, a fund raising organisation founded after the start of the Troubles. But it ain’t The Big Fellah, Richard Bean’s elliptical dramedy. Inspired by the irony of the American uniformed services being the primary victims of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers (given their history of raising cash for the IRA) it never really tackles it, choosing instead to flood the stage with action and ideas but little feeling.

Set, mainly, in one room over the course of 30 years it examines the characters that make up a single terrorist cell and the people who pass through their apartment. There’s Karelma (Yasmine Akram) a Puerto Rican emigrant who goes from being a possible one-night stand to lifeline for Ruairi O’Drisceoil (Luke Griffin), a wanted prisoner who has traded life behind bars for a life as the star of a prolonged extradition hearing. He even gets a corner named after him that’s status decreases in keeping with the “causes”.

There’s Michael (David Ricardo-Pearce), a Protestant firefighter of Irish descent who offers up his home as a safe-house after hearing about the atrocities committed by the British soldiers during Bloody Sunday, and Tom Billy Coyle (Youssef Kerkour), a thick as shit New York cop whose racism is only out done by his homophobia, his ignorance being the source of much inappropriate mirth.

Visiting from Ireland, possible informer Elizabeth Ryan (an excellent Lisa Kerr) is used to great effect to highlight the widening chasm between the personal and political involvement of the different members, the realities and the fantasies. While David Rintoul is the terrifying Frank McArdle, a man akin to the bogeyman in Republican circles sent to sniff out another informant.

They are all brought together by David Costello, The Big Fellah (Finbar Lynch) of the title, chief fundraiser for the IRA, swift and brutal arm of the law (unto himself) and recruiter for the cause. One half John Gotti, one half crap comedienne whose vision of what is going on is often at odds with the long haired socialists “spreading shite on the walls of their cells”.

This is an informative, heavily researched play that is lubricated with laughs but lacks emotional impact. While exploring the effect of time, distance and myth on a man’s beliefs it charts the growing disillusionment, vehemence and bewilderment of the paramilitaries. Yet Bean tries to cram so much in that it’s more like an informative chat with a wisecracking, well-read drunk who hops from one topic to the next, saying things you’ve heard before in an entertaining yet empty fashion.

The characters are painted with such broad strokes and come out with lines as trite as “I like being in the IRA but if there is one thing I’d change it’s all the fecking killing”, they beggar belief. The cast work hard but are rendered ineffective by a script that hands them a final destination but no directions to get there.

The fact that all the American terrorists seem as thick as two planks does a further disservice not only to the credibility of the story but also to our interest in them as characters. The why of Michael’s involvement may have been mentioned but how he got so deeply entangled and the impact that this had on him is never properly explored.

How did these men feel about the atrocities they abetted? What kept them going after all these years? How did they justify murder to themselves? To their families? It was altogether too elusive, dismissive even, of their humanity, wrapping everything up in nicely scripted speeches packed full of safe, typical laughs.

The tacked on last minute pondering of the similarities between the men and Islamic terrorists and the cop out ending (closing on the morning of 9/11 rather than having the characters do any soul searching after it) added to an implausible plot twist and poor character development resulted in an disappointing night in the stalls.


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