A theatre company specialising in bringing Irish theatre to London is staging a tense but hilarious play set in Dublin during World War II to Bread and Rose Theatre in Clapham and The London Irish Centre in Camden.
In this year, the centenary of the formation of the Irish State, Strange Fish Theatre Company will present Dev’s Army by Stuart D Lee.
Dev’s Army is a comedy that examines the first major foreign policy decision the new independent Ireland made, to remain a neutral country for the duration World War II.
Set in 1940 with the war moving ever closer to Ireland’s shores, the play centres around three members of the Local Defence Force who keep watch from the Dublin coast.
When a stranger suddenly appears at their remote look-out post, stakes are raised and loyalties questioned in the dark comedy that is described as combining the wit of Sean O’Casey with the thrill of film noir.
Artistic Director of Strange Fish Nick Danan, who is also part of the cast, told The Irish World: “I think we’ve got a great yarn on our hands here.
“It is weirdly timely because without trying to overlabour the point, it’s 1940. The Nazis have got the upper hand, Ireland is neutral and it’s like, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to us all?’
“Now we’ve got Putin on the border doing scary stuff.
“That’s the backdrop. It’s this kind of scary, ‘Jesus, what’s gonna happen next week’ kind of atmosphere at the darkest point of the war.
“It’s got interesting parallels.”
Dev’s Army was Stuart D Lee’s seventh play and won the Galway Theatre Festival New Writing Competition (2010); the ‘Manchester Forever’ Manchester Fringe (2011); and the ‘Best New Writing’ award at the Buxton Fringe (2011).
“It’s a really interesting combination.
“It’s got that great tradition of classic Irish theatre comedy.
“There’s stuff in there like O’Casey or Flann O’Brien would have written and at the same time almost like a film noir dark kind of thing going on as well.
“Really, the writer’s really put a really interesting combination together, which you don’t always see.
“It’s obviously taken quite a wry look at Anglo-Irish relations obviously coming out of the Anglo-Irish war and all the rest of it, and it’s all very raw and fresh.
“That maybe sounds a little dry, but it’s got great jokes in it to be perfectly honest.
“There’s just some great laugh out loud stuff.
“It just blends really nicely with kind of like a thriller element.”
The title obviously alludes to Dad’s Army, the BBC comedy about an aging team fighting their own battle against Hitler’s Germany.
By all accounts, Ireland’s protection in these dark times were little more prepared for a Nazi invasion.
Nick continues: “It’s this little guard hut and these three volunteers, the Local Volunteer Force.
“It’s all cobbled together. They’ve got a bicycle with one wheel and a gun with one bullet, and they’re supposed to be guarding the Dublin coast.
“This mysterious woman gets shipwrecked and they find her.
“Without giving too much away, it all kind of kicks off really. It all takes a turn.”
Helen Niland, who directs the comedy set during a seminal time in Irish history, says: “It’s so dynamic that there’s no point where the audience will go into a lull.
“There’s lots of old tales, Irish tales, and a lot of arguments head to head.
“There’s this mysterious woman and a big reveal at the end.
“I don’t want to give it away but it’s very sombre at the end.
“It’s a real kick in the balls at the end because the audience really like these three characters.
“They’re very likeable and very funny. The banter is non-stop, the hilarity is non-stop and then suddenly someone comes and she’s like a snake and she ruins everything basically.”
Is it timely not just because of the centenary and current events in Ukraine but also in the wake of Brexit?
Helen says: “Yes, and also what’s going on with Northern Ireland. That feeling that Ireland wants its independence, that hasn’t gone away yet.”
Nick continues: “It’s very timely post Brexit because it is taking a wry look at Anglo- Irish relations and Ireland’s neutrality in the war.
“And it’s kind of like, ‘Is Dev going to lend them a hand?’ Which obviously he did. He sent the fire engines up north and all that kind of thing.
“And the characters have all got their own point of view on that, of where they sit and that’s great because you get this back and forth between the characters.
“They disagree with each other and it gets quite heated in amusing ways.
“And it is very much, ‘England is right over there and getting a hammering right now. What do we do about it?’”
Helen adds: “I’m second generation Irish, and I barely know the English history, let alone the Irish history so I’ve learned quite a lot.
“I think that it will really teach an English audience a huge amount of Irish history and what happened during the war, because I think you’ll find that not many people who go to see this play know anything about that.
“It’s a teaching experience. It’s a learning experience.”
The cast is completed by Eoin McAndrew, Niamh Finlay and Paul Murphy.
Paul Murphy, from Clontarf, plays Paddy.
Paul says: “I’m really excited to be doing this character.
“He is so immersed in the whole thing and he believes he is doing his duty and bit for Ireland.
“In all honesty, we’re so well equipped, we make the Dad’s Army team look like an Israeli force.
“We’re true believers in what we’re doing for Ireland.”
Eoin McAndrew, who The Irish World interviewed about The Girl Who Was Very Good at Lying which he had written, plays Michael.
Eoin says: “My character is called Michael and he’s kind of like the junior officer.
“I think he’s watched too many films.
“He’s been given this post and he thinks he’s Humphrey Bogart.
“He really wants to get into the thick of things, but he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
Nick says: “I’m playing Dermot who’s an old soldier who fought in the first war.
“He takes it all very seriously and is very kind of worried about developments out there.
“He’s kind of rolling his eyes at these two eejits he’s been posted at.
“He can’t quite believe the outfit that he’s landed in.
“And then halfway through proceedings enter our very own Niamh who is playing the mysterious woman of the piece.”
Niamh Finlay from Inchicore says: “My character is the mysterious stranger that comes in and kind of changes the whole energy of the play.
“A lot of the play is the characters in real time trying to figure out who she is and why she’s there.
“As the night unfolds, the audience maybe see everything is not as it seems with her.
“It’s set in 1940 so at that time, women were kind of seen as very delicate, sweet natured things.
“This shows as the play goes on, maybe that’s not completely right for this particular woman.
“It’s got a McDonagh feel, McDonagh mixed with O’Casey, those kind of weird and wonderful characters.”
Helen adds: “It’s quite high brow. It’s not Father Ted.
“It feels like silly Irish humour and old fashioned jokes, but it also teaches history.
“Especially in the second half, it is much more highbrow in its approach because it’s arguing the two sides very strongly.
“It’s very heated and it’s tense.”
Nick concludes: “Because it’s 1940, events are fresh in the memory for these people.
“It wasn’t that long ago: The Rising, the Civil War and all the rest of it.
“It’s not history, it’s their own life experience.”
Niamh adds: “The good thing about Irish humour is it’s quite universal.
“The majority of the audience may be English but it does still appeal.
“I think it will be a really nice night to embrace Irish humour.”
On that note, Nick adds: “I think it’s a great night out and we could do with one of those.”
After being staged at Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham 8-19 March, the production will come to the London Irish Centre.
Nick says: “We’re Absolutely delighted that the Irish Centre have partnered up with us on this one.
“They’ve been brilliant.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to be able to do it in South London. We’ve got a bit of a following in Clapham because we’ve done some stuff there before and then also come for the first time to the Irish Centre.
“We’re totally delighted that they’ve opened their doors and pretty excited by that.”
Founded in 2016 by artistic director, Nick Danan along with co-producers Paul Lloyd and Matt Dunphy, Strange Fish are a producing company aimed at bringing the best of classical, modern and new Irish writing to the UK and beyond. Dev’s Army is their fourth production following the critically acclaimed The Matchbox by Frank McGuinness. They also done Owen McCafferty’s Quietly and an Irish take on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Nick says: “Our mission is to bring great Irish theatre to these shores, just fly the flag for some of the brilliant Irish work that’s out there.
“That’s our core identity.
“People are still getting to know us a little bit and all the rest of it but we’re not planning to disappear anytime soon so I would encourage people to come and really just immerse themselves in some great Irish work.”