The Big Fellah

Richard Bean
Out of Joint and the Lyric Hammersmith
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2011)

The Big Fellah production photo with the original cast

The Big Fellah ends its tour at Newcastle's Northern Stage with some signifiant changes of cast from that which played at Newbury and the Lyric Hammersmith: Luke Griffin replaces Rory Keenan as Ruari, Lisa Kerr now plays Elizabeth Ryan and David Rintoul takes over as hard man "security man" Frank McArdle.

Set mainly in a New York safe house apartment belonging to Irish protestant Provisional IRA supporter Michael Doyle (David Ricardo-Pearce), The Big Fellah covers a period of some thirty years from Bloody Sunday in 1972 to 9/11 and traces the history of the Troubles from an American perspective. It is based loosely on fact: Ruari O'Drisceoil is the play's version of Joe Doherty, killer of a British SAS officer who escaped from Long Kesh and fled to the US, Elizabeth Ryan shadows Christin ni Elias who was thought to be a "tout" for British Intelligence, and the Big Fellah himself, businessman David Costello (a very strong, chillingly charismatic performance by Finbar Lynch) represents those leading American Irishmen who fed money and arms to the IRA, first through Noraid and then directly.

It is presented as a series of scenes some years apart, each occuring at around a significant time in the history, including the death of Bobby Sands, the "kidnapping" of Shergar, support from Libya, Enniskillen and the Omagh bombing. It has a threefold focus: the principal characters, the Troubles themselves and the changing attitudes of the American public.

It has to be said that some of the characters are pretty one-dimensional. For example, Frank McArdle verges on caricature and it is entirely due to David Rintoul's playing that that particular line is not crossed. Tom Billy Coyle, the rogue policeman played by Youssef Kerkour, is one-dimensional but there is nothing to Kerkour can do to make him otherwise. As for Yasmine Akram's Karelma, we are expected to accept a huge change in her between her first and second appearances; the nine years separating them does, of course, explain this but the change in her circumstances is dismissed in a few brief lines and it does jar somewhat. No reflection there on Ms Akram's playing: it's the writing which falls a little short.

This could be a recipe for a "bitty" piece and, when you factor in Richard Bean's penchant for mixing comedy amid the seriousness, the danger is exacerbated. But somehow it works; partially because each scene is compellingly written, partially because of Max Stafford-Clark's meticulous direction and partially because of very strong performances from an excellent cast. And make no mistake, this is a geat cast.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan