Thursday 30 September 2010

Funny people asking serious questions

The Big Fellah, Lyric Theatre, London

In the opening scene of Richard Bean’s, The Big Fellah, Michael Doyle and Ruairi O’Drisceoil, both living in a Bronx apartment-cum-IRA safehouse, discuss fellow IRA member Frank McArdle. Michael has pinned a guitar to the wall and Ruairi anticipates a bad reaction: ‘For this, Frank, he’d blindfold yer, drill yer kneecaps, beat yet till yet were lard, set fire to the lard, and then piss on yer to put yer out, so he could beat yer, light yer up, all over again.’  It is a classic Richard Bean line, and representativeof The Big Fellah; flippant but cleverly and carefully constructed; very funny but lent more kick still by a strong, violent undercurrent.  

Bean is a master at using funny people to ask serious questions; at encasing his controversy in comedy. It is a practice he has been honing carefully, most recently with the acerbic and contentious England People Very Nice. Nearly all the characters in The Big Fellah are similarly over-defined: this is the source of Bean’s comedy but also his pertinent political observations. His characters are caricatures for a reason. At one point, the ‘Big Fellah’, an IRA big gun David Costello (Finbar Lynch in predictably and impressively intense form), is asked by racist cop Tom Billy Coyle about the Muslims and their motivations. It is shortly before 9/11 and New York and its citizens are frightened. ‘What do the Muslims want?’ asks the cop. ‘They want what all religions want – they want to punish us for being human.’ It is a blistering reply, delivered with beautiful restraint by Costello, and one that reminds us why all Bean’s characters are pitched just above normal, human level: it is their blind faiths and blinding prejudices that have made them so.

Bean has an exceptionally high number of ‘obsessives’ or super/subhuman characters to play with here. Often, this combination of brightly coloured characters makes for scenes that fizz with acumen and wit. Occasionally, it feels a little forced; as if the collection of characters has been generated for Bean’s own amusement. In the first scene (following an opening, politicised monologue, about the IRA’s need for funding in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday) we are introduced to one Catholic and one Protestant (both members of the IRA), a screechingly racist cop and a potential illegal immigrant. It is the stuff that Bean’s dramatic dreams are made of. This unique combination of characters means Bean can crank out the satirical quips at a dizzying rate, but it does lend some scenes a suspiciously superficial feel. 

This hint of artificiality isn’t helped by the play’s purposefully skewed chronology. We skip between multiple time periods, spanning from 1972 to 2001, and although Bean’s observational comedy consistently hits the mark, the characters start to feel a little thin, pared down by the scatological action. Slightly amped up already, the characters start to slide between – and escape through – the cracks in the structure: the relationships don’t quite congeal nor do the characters’ emotions fully materialise. Bean seems unsure of the focus of the play: whilst the framework suggests The Big Fellah is meant to be about the increasingly conflicted relationship between the impressionable Michael Doyle and the revered and feared David Costello, lots of the scenes focus on friend Ruairi (Rory Keenan)and his possible collusion with the FBI.

Without a strong emotional thread, the play begins to feel fractured and the characters slightly forced; highly defined but without any real emotional weight behind them. Max Stafford Clark’s fairly ploddy direction – the change in time period is represented by the year flashing up against the wall – doesn’t work hard enough to tighten things up and only heightens the show’s staccato feel. The result is an erratic first half, with strange emotional ruptures that don’t always work within such a jolting and sometimes crudely characterised piece.

Nevertheless, when the underlying violence starts to pierce through the comedy in the second act, the atmosphere tightens again and the characters crystallise. Bean is brilliant at creating unbelievably packed moments of piercing symbolism. Late on, IRA member Frank pays Ruairi and Michael a visit, suspicious that one of them is leaking insider IRA information to the Feds. The man, who in the first act was a figure of fun, transforms with terrific pace into a terrifying figure; joking one minute and wielding a drill the next. Bean notches up the violent symbolism higher and higher still: David Costello discovers Frank roughing up ‘his people’ and, after some teasing and frighteningly small, small talk, Costello forces alcoholic Frank to down some fine Irish whiskey, whilst a gun is pointed at his head by a fellow Irishman.  We watch, aghast, as Frank is ruined by fine Irish whiskey and threatened by a compatriot; everything that he loved, perhaps too much, is turning in on him. 

Gradually, the humour ebbs away and the puns transform from light jabs to piercing jolts. The comedy begins to hurt, as we watch the IRA members turn in on themselves, as we watch the characters become more human as they let go of (or are let down by) their obsessions and as we watch New York and its frightened citizens slowly self-implode in the build up towards 9/11. The symbolism can get a little too neat, sometimes. In the final scene, faithful IRA member Michael switches on the radio to a broadcast in September, 2011. He turns around to leave for work and we discover Michael, still a member of the IRA, is wearing a Fire Deparment of New York jacket. It is hard to know what Bean is saying with this image and the neat convergence of plot threads feels overworked. But this remains a sharp and painful piece, which functions slightly outside of ‘reality’, but still contains cold truths about our conflicting desires to serve and conform, but also to question and feel. 

Till 16 October 2010


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