Dev’s Army, by Stuart D. Lee, is built around critical and highly sensitive issues in the history of the island of Ireland that to this day determine its politics and its divisions. We’re told in the programme that the play is ‘a comedy that examines the first major foreign policy decision the nascent nation made independent of British rule namely, to remain a neutral country for the duration World War II’.
very much in the style of Dad’s Army
Humour can often lighten and indeed enlighten the most serious of topics and seeing the funny side of something can be a source of relieving tension. At times this production does just that. It opens very much in the style of Dad’s Army, to which it is no doubt indebted. The Dev of this army, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, has his image displayed on the wall near to the colourful green, white and orange flag and reminders of the country’s Roman Catholic allegiance. Designer Phil Newman has paid attention to detail in creating the tiny hut that looks out towards the Isle Man as part of Ireland's early warning defence against invasion. No doubt Paul Freeman had fun putting together the sounds for the raging winds that convincingly blast through the dwelling every time the door is opened with related lighting issues firmly under the control of Amy Daniels.
Paddy Devlin (Paul Murphy), the senior former soldier in this trio of the Local Defence Force that occupy the hut, potters around the hut muttering often amusing lines to himself as he flicks through various radio stations broadcasting what have become famous lines from Churchill and songs by Vera Lyn that set the scene. He is joined by the seemingly dim-witted Michael O’Connolly (Eoin McAndrew) who becomes the butt of many jokes, which tend to be rather demeaning after a while, but it is he who will provide one of the major twists in the plot. The political tension mounts when they are joined by Dermot Ryan (Nick Danan) who fought in the First World War and is a British sympathiser. Paddy, on the other hand, is a staunch republican with exaggerated claims to involvement in such events as the Easter Rising.
The first major turn of events comes with a mighty explosion and the discovery of Betty Pope (Niamh Finlay) washed up on the shore. The mystery surrounding her now becomes the focus of enquiry and questioning. From this point on the play becomes increasingly farcical before heading towards tragedy in its denouement via elements of black comedy. It makes for an uncomfortable series of changes in style and a loss of credibility that suggest either flaws in the play itself or that director Helen Niland simply hasn’t come to terms with handling the transitions.
Strange Fish Theatre Company, which specialises in producing Irish drama, scored two stunning hits with Quietly and The Matchbox. Dev’s Army, at The Bread & Roses Theatre, however, is just not in the same league.