The Big Fellah – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

An unusual start but let me first declare a tinted view for this production. As someone who was injured in an IRA attack, any play that examines the Troubles was going to touch a raw nerve.

Richard Bean’s new play, The Big Fellah, spans nearly 40 years of the American-Irish relationship with the IRA – from Bloody Sunday through to 9/11.

Young New Yorker Michael is recruited into the IRA and what starts out as just fundraising for the cause soon takes on a darker turn. Fugitive Irishman Ruairi has a longer association with the organisation and, on the surface anyway, seems a more hardened fighter but, as the years pass, both men’s directions and allegiances change. Both live in fear and awe of chief fundraiser and cell leader Costello, ‘The Big Fellah’.

It is an emotive subject and one that some will find uncomfortable viewing. Bean’s script attempts to show the dark humour that counterpoints the extreme violence but it’s an uneasy balancing act. The writing doesn’t pull any punches as it examines American support for the IRA and that changing relationship as events play out on the wider global stage. While The Big Fellah works as a spark to stimulate thought on why some Americans supported the IRA,there is perhaps a more interesting story here in a sequel. The play ends on September 11 2001, an event that saw American financial support for the IRA evaporate practically overnight and perhaps this emergence from naievty is where a more interesting story lies.

There are some memorable performances here, though; David Ricardo-Pearce and Rory Keenan’s young American and Irish recruits work well together as they face the torment of being torn between conscience and cause. Claire Rafferty is equally engaging in her brief appearance as an informant who’s quickly dispatched “to Mexico”. At the centre of the piece, though, is a steely determined performance from Finbar Lynch as The Big Fellah himself. Quietly underplayed but with great intensity.

Out of Joint have tackled the subject of terrorism before in their powerful Talking With Terrorists but, while that play looked at the reasons why people turn to extreme measures, The Big Fellah leaves more questions unanswered. It’s a powerful piece and one that will provoke strong emotions from its audience. Just because a subject is painful and emotive doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told, on the contrary one of the joys of theatre is its ability to inform, educate and stimulate debate. The Big Fellah certainly provokes thought and debate but there is a stronger story here not wholly served by this production.

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