Review – The Big Fellah, Out of Joint, Royal & Derngate Northampton, 7th September

Big FellahIt’s not often that I’m motivated to react this quickly in the blog to something I’ve seen. Normally I wait a few days, let it cogitate and lie fallow. But my brain is bubbling over as a result of this play to the extent that, in the words of Cat Stevens, I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out.

1972. An IRA cell in New York. Huge funds are being successfully raised at classy dinner events. A safe house is established. The Big Fellah is in charge, although only carrying out orders from afar. There are already loyal workers to the cause; a new man is recruited. It’s really easy to say too much about the plot and I won’t do so, because I want every one of you to go and see it for yourselves over the next few months in Northampton, Bury St Edmunds, Lyric Hammersmith, Oxford, Southampton, York and Birmingham. Suffice it to say, the story develops over thirty or so years and works its way through to a thoroughly believable conclusion.

The first thing that struck me about this play was the power of its writing. Here you have some characters that, if you read about them in the newspaper, you would probably be pleased if they got their come-uppance. Richard Bean brings them to life with apparently effortless ease. They are totally credible, realistic, and above all ordinary people like you and me. So when something devastating happens to a couple of them, you really feel it. I was almost in tears just before the interval. And like ordinary people, they are also, at times, very very funny. The first ten minutes after the interval was one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen between two male characters since early Stoppard. Yet when this sequence ends, it ends with some shivering onstage violence – physical, mental, and threatened. A big man humbled and degraded. It quite took my breath away.

I don’t normally do “post show talks” but this time both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it would be complementary to the play. This is partly because she didn’t “get” the end. I did. She feels it’s a flaw in the production that she didn’t get it. She thinks I got it because I looked at the dates. Shan’t say any more, nuff said. The author Richard Bean explained his motivation for writing the play, and I don’t think on reflection he actually achieved what he set out to do, but in fact probably wrote something else much more significant. I know I run the risk of not making any sense if you haven’t seen the play. Go and see it to discover it for yourself.

The director, Max Stafford-Clark, was also at the post show talk, and I was fascinated to see and hear him in real life, being this Colossus of avant-garde theatre since the 1970s. In answer to a question about how he generally directed the play, he explained that they went the Full Stanislavsky Monty. The cast did workshops, improvisations, motivational scenes, went back into the characters’ pasts, played around with the text, and loads of really interesting stuff. They gave us some examples by doing a couple of short scenes from the play differently, and they were very revealing. Rory KeenanAnd boy did this approach to the text pay dividends, because this cast were as ensemble a bunch as you could possibly witness, every word being intelligently, thoughtfully and often hilariously delivered. I’m not going to single out anyone for a special praise. Oh well maybe I will – Rory Keenan as his namesake Ruairi was for me the complete highlight, although maybe that’s because Richard Bean gave his character the best lines.

Mrs Chrisparkle was slightly concerned about the accents of some of the cast. The magic of the theatre wiped that away for me, if there were any dubious accents I didn’t notice them. But she’s normally right on this kind of thing.

Only now, almost twelve hours after seeing it, did an extra aspect to the denouement occur to me – that the last person to die (we suppose) in this story would have been thought of as a hero pretty much universally. Terrorism – what goes around, comes around.

If I did stars, this would be a Five. Carlsberg don’t do plays, but if they did….

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