Set in the Big Apple itself, though casting the jihadists temporarily to the sidelines, Bean’s play explores the happenings at an IRA safe house. Spanning four decades, starting in 1972, and featuring a trim and likable cast who suitably and convincingly mature, develop, and suffer along the way, the production has a satisfying depth to it. We see our Irish ‘hero’ Ruairi O’Drisceoil navigate his way amongst his Irish-American IRA comrades, paradoxically appearing somewhat less comfortable with the concept of ‘killing for a cause’ than they do. His unwitting American (with ‘Irish ancestry’) roommate Michael Doyle soon slips into the IRA camaraderie, and stereotypical NYPD cop gone bad Tom Billy Coyle is a gem of an overbearing, grotesque ignoramus. Finbar Lynch smoothly plays the ‘Big Fellah’ himself; a typically cool masochist you find yourself eerily attracted to.
It’s a thorny subject and Bean’s characters are suitably complex. However, under Max Stafford-Clark’s direction and performed by his company Out of Joint, the play is lifted, at points, into an unusual realm where regardless of your political or personal standing, or even if indeed you have no idea what’s going on, you can’t help but be entertained (and as the lady sitting behind me did with ear-piercing gusto, laugh out loud). The script is dazzling, in parts, and takes full advantage of Irish wit and the New Yawk vernacular.
Humour is an effective vehicle for perspective; it’s immensely liberating to be able to laugh at such a present problem. However, there is something a little incongruous, and uncomfortable in the themes and their associated presentation in The Big Fellah especially considering the recent apparent resurgence in activity in Northern Ireland. Still, this production manages to strip out the silliness at the right moments, and the play’s touching conclusion is testament to the fact that Bean has a serious agenda.