Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Big Fellah, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: The Big Fellah, Lyric Hammersmith

As David Costello, Finbar Lynch bursts in to the New York flat being used as an IRA safe house. He barely breaks stride, unlocking, swishing through and slamming the front door as if silencing a small-town saloon on entry. He’s awful small for a man known to New York and the IRA as the Big Fellah, but – my god – does he live up to the name. His feet are so firmly planted they could have grown roots; his stance is a cool lean, almost Californian. But this smooth exterior houses a fearsome individual, one who – were he ever to lose his temper, which he does not – could explode like a fleet of synchronised car bombs: unexpectedly and forcefully.

Costello is the leader of a small IRA unit housed in this particular Bronx bolt hole. What seems at first a student hangout – the play spans three decades from 1972 to September 2001 – morphs into a Pinteresque purgatory, in which occupants await orders, one of which – relocation to Mexico – indicates execution.

The result is a fascinating peek behind enemy lines, as we get drawn into motives that – in this country, at least – have been characterised as ignoble. Here, such is the seductive charisma of Lynch’s Costello, they seem quite the opposite. Ruairi O’Drisceoil (Rory Keenan), wanted for his role in the murder of a young woman on a previous operation, becomes a martyr of sorts as he takes to the dock to protest his innocence. Astoundingly, we want him to succeed. Likewise, there’s a warmth to firefighter Michael Doyle (David Ricardo-Pearce) – the flat’s owner – who offers his services in an misconstrued bid to honour his Irish ancestry by joining the IRA. That he comes from Protestant stock never strikes him as problematic.

Much of the appeal stems from the likeability and surprising gentleness that Richard Bean lends these blundering eediots, perfectly handled by a top notch cast. Bean laces the play with dark, yet unimposing, humour. What violence we are privy to – the po-faced ‘security man’, Frank McArdle (Fred Ridgeway), who turns up with his trusty electric drill; the muscular but moronic Tom Billy Coyle (Youssef Kerkour), planted in the NYPD, waving his gun around as if playing Starsky and Hutch – has its edges smoothed down by their bungling. The comedy has echoes of Martin McDonagh’s hitmen-in-hiding romp In Bruges.

Yet Bean is careful not to let the menace slip – and director Max Stafford-Clark makes a fiery crucible of the flat. The threat of Mexico hangs over the action and Costello – Lynch really is on dazzling form – changes the room’s temperature every time he steps through the door. It’s not that he always stokes the fire. His second entrance, staggering slightly with a head clouded by drink, positively releases steam, without wholly relieving the pressure. Elsewhere, when he half-forces, half-tempts Frank off the wagon with a fine whisky on the rocks, there’s an icy intensity: the sort of cold that burns the skin.

Besides, one is always aware of events overseas – whether the hunger strikes in Long Kesh prison, Bloody Sunday or the bomb that gutted Omagh’s high street. It’s as if Costello’s crack unit have had a hand in each of the events fixed in the history of the troubles.

Stephanie Street – gradually softening from sultry to sympathetic – seems miscast as the undercover FBI agent to whom O’Drisceoil spills his secrets, but the role is underdeveloped – more in terms of context than character. The actions of the FBI remain unclear, given that they intervene after information only once and let the terrorist cell continue in the heart of New York. Bean also overplays his hand with a final scene, set in September 2001, that sees Michael heading off to work before the air fills with sirens. He made his point about the IRA’s usurpation by Al’qaeda in the 1990s, with Tom seeking clarification over the aims of “them Muslims.”

Perhaps it serves to further humanise those that we’re used to demonising. But, if Bean believes a turn towards sentiment is necessary, he’s mistaken. This sharply funny, gutsy and informative play does so throughout with real class and momentum.

Photograph: Jon Haynes

One Comment

  1. “That he comes from Protestant stock never strikes him as problematic”: nor me. Wolfe Tone, Grattan, Henry Joy McCracken, many of the original United Irishmen were Protestant: more recently, Roger Casement and Seán Mac Stíofáin were born Protestant though baptised and/or raised Catholic. The tribal lines run by default, but they're nothing like as form as is often assumed.

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