The Big Fellah

Richard Bean
Out of Joint
Lyric, Hammersmith

The Big Fellah production photo

There is no other playwright around who has Richard Bean's ability to explore the most serious subjects - literally matters of life and death - and dress them up in rich comedy, on this occasion helped immeasurably by his director, Out Of Joint's Max Stafford-Clark.

In doing so, he heightens the dramatic effect and that is certainly the case in The Big Fellah, ostensibly a play about Irish-Americans but, as subtext, one that takes on such issues as AIDS, gender issues and Al Qaeda.

The Big Fellah is set in the Bronx over a 30 year period framed by Bloody Sunday in 1972 at one end and 9/11 at the other. Across this period, the play follows one IRA support cell in the ups and downs of fundraising and gun-running in a country that gradually loses all interest in a cause that eventually ceases to have meaning.

The central characters are like chalk and cheese. Rory Keenan as Ruari is a good-natured Irishman on the run, following a Republican police execution that landed him in Long Kesh.

His boss could have come straight from the Godfather, had the Corleones had Irish cousins. Finbar Lynch makes much of the smooth American businessman of the title. David Costello rules his men with a hand of steel exemplified by his handling of Claire Rafferty's potentially disloyal Elizabeth but seems to lack a heart, that is until family problems arise, when his pain becomes visible.

This pair are sheltered by Michael, a Protestant (like Wolf Tone) fireman, and helped by a short-tempered policeman, Tom Billy played respectively by David Ricardo-Pearce and Youssef Kerkour, neither heavily endowed with brains. Together, this crew advances the cause in any way that they can.

At the start, this consists of asking Rory to give himself up for a New York show trial which eventually leads to exoneration and the promised accolade of a street-naming, or a corner anyway. Even then, he is struggling for citizenship until the hand of God, or Stephanie Street's Karelma and her shadowy friends, help out.

Through just over two hours the play jumps in time, offering social history lessons that combine the struggle for Northern Irish independence and contribution of Gerry Adams with wider issues.

Perhaps the best scene is that involving the impeccable Fred Ridgeway's Frank, a monosyllabic hard man of the old school, sent from home to root out a spy. Inexplicably, despite being a caricature, Frank perfectly embodies a character type that we must all pray has disappeared forever. His methods are traditionally brutal but the father of ten daughters cannot compete with a suitably riled Big Fellah, who sends him packing with Irish elan but Scotch whisky.

With Finbar Lynch and Rory Keenan shining in the vanguard of a strong cast, The Big Fellah builds on a series of sometimes isolated period vignettes. Even so, and acknowledging that the peripheral characters can appear one-dimensional, the play still inevitably builds to so much more than the sum of its parts, not to mention an ending that should leave audience members stunned.

The key to Bean's knack of analysing a topic without appearing to do so seems to be a great deal of research and his unique ability to compile the results into perfect form, which he certainly does on this occasion. He also loves to leave both comic and serious depth charges to explode when the time is right.

By the end of the evening, viewers will have learned a vast amount about The Irish Problem, almost by osmosis, a little about modern history on a wider but primarily American canvas and, at the same time, enjoyed many more laughs than in an average comedy.

It is hard to believe that this wonderful entertainment from the award-winning writer of Harvest and England People Very Nice is only enjoying a 3½-week London run. Catch it while you can or lobby for an extension or transfer. It is that good.

Robin Strapp reviewed "The Big Fellah" in Newbury. It was also reviewed (with a slightly different cast) by Peter Lathan in Newcastle.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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