Writer: Richard Bean
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: Michael Hunter
The Public Reviews Rating:1972: St Patrick’s Day in the New York Bronx should have been filled with flowing pints of black nectar and the flag waving of the Irish (and its wannabes). Bloody Sunday has shocked Fireman Michael Doyle (David Ricardo-Pearce) and he yearns to return to his grass roots by helping those in need with a ‘safe house’ and joining up to the Provisional IRA. Richard Bean’s ‘The Big Fellah’ follows him – and many different characters – in the quest for Irish/American harmony.
Set in Doyle’s haven (brilliantly created by Tim Shortall) we see the comings and goings of many fugitives, all hiding-out with transit on their minds. To be smuggled, with false documentation, over the border into Canada is their aim – not all will get there! If the hierarchy of the IRA Council have decreed you as being unwanted, then ‘sending them to Mexico’ (a euphemism for being murdered) will be the order.
The orders come through ‘The Big Fellah’ David Costello (Finbar Lynch) a tough Irish New Yorker, who delivers his messages from Dublin with congratulatory glee!
Ruairi O’Drisceoil (Luke Griffin) has been sprung from Long Kesh (‘H’ Block) prison after shooting dead a British soldier. He is loyal to the cause and Canada seems his only option. Costello brings news to him that Dublin wants him to surrender and be tried for political reasons, maybe make him out to be a martyr. Orders must be obeyed, and after meeting with Karelma (Yasmine Akram) she agrees to help him gain US citizenship. But what price will he have to pay for this?
Doyle’s lover Elizabeth Ryan (Lisa Kerr) is another ‘on the run’ republican, but the FBI seem to know a lot of what is being discussed in the safe house and suspicions arise that she is divulging information. On orders from Costello, Tom Billy Coyle (Youssef Kerkour), a sympathising corrupt policeman, is brought in to make sure she is ‘Mexico’ bound!
A catchment of arms from Libya is intercepted en route to Ireland by the authorities and this prompts Frank McArdle (David Rintoul), a ruthless ex-alcoholic murderer, being sent by the IRA to try and find out who is the snitch.
All in all, this is a wonderful piece of theatre with a superb climax. Flawless performances were given by all on stage, although I think the violence of McArdle could have been choreographed a little better, as there were a few punches out of synch, so no awards for the fight scenes! Lynch held the superiority card for his portrayal, but Griffin’s tom-foolery was superb to see.
Bean’s vision for ‘The Big Fellah’ came when he saw monetary collections in New York after the 9\11 bombings – perhaps four of five years earlier it would have been for the IRA – and his writing style is fluid and easily accessible.
Max Stafford-Clark’s direction delivered, with every detail, a great production.
I have always liked Irish-based humour as it seems to have a fresh vitality about it and ‘The Big Fellah’ is as succulent as the first crop of the Lumper potato. Some truly side-splitting moments, alongside some heart-wrenching drama, made this production riveting watching.