Oxfringe brought this one-act play as part of Elysion's British tour. Ironically it was written by an Oxford playwright, Stuart Lee, who is getting to be very well known in the city. After seeing their interpretation of the play, it is to be hoped that Elysion become well-known here, too.
The plot involves a small Irish coastal 'home guard' unit who encounter a stranger who arrives from the sea. Who is he? What is he? And … what will they do about him? Though the title invites comparison with Dad's Army, Stuart's play is far from knockabout comedy. The political questions raised by his shrewd research into a lesser-explored area of Ireland's history are relevant and cogent. What might have happened to Ireland had the Germans been successful in a British invasion? Loyalties in the Republic were swayed in several directions at once; a parallel with contemporary war-torn countries.
The characters in the play are sharply drawn and easily recognised. Paddy, the through-and-through Irish loyalist, played by Richard Sails, has an avuncular nature and plenty of earthy wit to keep us laughing. His intellectually-challenged recruit, Michael (played by Daniel McClelland) becomes the butt of a few practical jokes. Daniel risked caricature with his gormless expressive facials, but had the acting skills to generate credibility into his role. We sympathise with both parties in the duologues between them; it does seem as though poor Daniel is doing his best and that his best will always be a few pence short of an Irish pound. Dermot (played by Matt Lanigan), on the other hand, is a clear-headed soldier who has sorted out his allegiances unambiguously. He is pro-British, has already fought for King and country and believes that to be in Ireland's interests, too. The political clash and Dermot's dominance make for some amusing drama when a package arrives containing the only ammunition the unit will have - a single bullet. The writer toys with this metaphor as the second scene opens with the washing up on the beach of the man - played by Wayne Allsop.
The acting of both Wayne and Matt was particularly impressive in their dramatic stand-off. Within the context of a funny play, drama can be almost impossible to attain believably. It is quite an achievement that they were convincing throughout - as indeed were all the actors. It is a fine troupe.
Without giving away the twists and turns in a terse, fast-moving plot, suffice it to say that these actors fulfil their roles with consummate professional skills. James Foster's direction keeps us on the edge of our seat throughout and the denouement is exciting and unanticipated. The play does a very great deal in an hour. Perhaps, too much. There is enough material here for a longer play in which the characters would have more time to make the theatrical journeys demanded of them by Lee's tightly-written script. But the play certainly works. It is hugely enjoyable and poses important questions. I, for one, will look out for both writer and company in future.