The Big Fellow review: A lesson in what happens when you stop teaching history

Based on Frank O’Connor’s life of Michael Collins, Declan Gorman’s play misses its mark

Admirably determined: Gerard Adlum and Ian Toner in The Big Fellow

Admirably determined: Gerard Adlum and Ian Toner in The Big Fellow

 

THE BIG FELLOW

Everyman, Cork
★★★☆☆
This production is a lesson for Minister for Education Joe McHugh: abandon the teaching of history in our schools and this is what you get. It’s not that the narrative presented in fits and starts is skewed from its original source – based on the book by Frank O’Connor, it aims for the combative affection with which O’Connor wrote his entertaining biography in the 1930s – but 10 minutes in and the target has been missed.

Lurking within Declan Gorman’s script is a drama of a writer in conflict with his subject: both combative – this Michael Collins is a carpet-chewer of Hitlerian ferocity – both victims of their own people. But oh, the conventions: the Proclamation, the surrender, the lancers, the uilleann pipes! The procession of that “cloudy pantheon of perfect and boring immortals”:here they come again.

The hints instead of a questioning examination of both O’Connor as biographer and Collins as flawed martyr of Irish freedom can’t survive the head-in-hands clunkiness of so much of the dialogue: Collins is reminded of the name of his general as if he didn’t know it; that’s because we may not know it. Even respect for the attempt to inform falters as an excuse.

Nobody on a stage should have to ask, on welcoming the success of a foray of assassinations, if there are any casualties

Despite the admirably determined attitudes of the two players, some elements of this production, by Co-Motion Media in association with Ballina Arts Centre, are inexcusable: nobody on a stage should have to announce that he’s got a meeting with Cathal Brugha about the national finances and where’s his bicycle, or, on welcoming the success of a foray of assassinations, to ask if there are any casualties.

A set laden with Chekhovian imperatives and a soundtrack of ochón agus ochón add to a kind of torpor relieved by Ian Toner’s gallant attempt at a Collins whose accent is, to be kind, flexible, and by Gerard Adlum’s brilliance as just about everybody in the Sinn Féin of the time, including a Brugha as grotesque as Quasimodo and a deviously effeminate Éamon de Valera.

At the Everyman, Cork, until Wednesday, March 13th, then at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from Friday, March 15th, until Sunday, March 17th

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