DEV’S ARMY must rank as one of the best Irish plays to hit the London stage in quite some time.
Set in a coastal hut/observation post, three hapless local defence volunteers are on guard duty, looking out for invaders, either German or British.
Set in 1940, the Free State in Ireland is neutral when it comes to the Second World War, or ‘the Emergency’, as De Valera would put it.
The three men are bored, and they break that boredom by codding the youngest member of the team, Michael, played by Eoin McAndrew, who puts in an amadán performance that would put Father Ted’s Dougal to shame.
Michael’s Tormenter-in-Chief is the wise-cracking older soldier, played by Paul Murphy, who boasts of being with the ‘boys of 1916’ which is a bit of a stretch.
To complete the trio, the two men are separated by the more sensible Nick Danan.
Matters then take a darker turn when they discover a mysterious woman on the beach.
Unconscious and injured, they bring the woman - effectively depicted in a strong performance by Niamh Finley - back to the hut whereby the play takes on a sinister aspect.
Towards the end of the play, audience bottoms are firmly gripping edges of seats.
Who is this woman? She carries no papers or identifying documents – nor is she dressed for the occasion as she tries to escape at every opportunity.
Is she a gunrunner or a spy? If the latter, who is her paymaster?
If that wasn’t enough, the intricate details of Ireland in the 1940’s are conveyed dramatically making it easy for non-Irish audiences to get the essence of Ireland of the time.
It’s always a worry that a significant percentage of audiences watching an Irish play get the nuances of the history as well as the broader strokes.
Then the tricky question of neutrality itself comes into play.
Britain or Germany – who to choose?
The Germans are the perceived aggressors, but what about centuries of bitterness between Britain and Ireland – and let’s throw in the Six Counties for good measure.
In the hands of a lesser theatre company, such a combination would sink the play without trace.
And as for the production itself, the set dripped with authenticity augmented by a soundscape which added mood and menace to the play.
The lighting also played an integral role and the creative team deserve full marks for pulling out all the stops.
No review can escape the razer-sharp writing from the award-winning Stuart D Lee or the deft and assured direction from Helen Niland ably supported by Strange Fish Theatre.
This week Dev’s Army marched north from the Bread and Roses Theatre to Camden’s London Irish Centre, where it runs for one night on March 24.
But don’t worry about a possible invasion, it’s an emergency not a war and these three stooges have a bicycle with only one wheel, a gun with only one bullet and not an ounce of usable wit between them.
It would be wrong to draw parallels with Brexit, Ukraine or the rapidly changing Europe, all of which misses the point.
Dev’s Army stands on its own two feet and deservedly so.
Father Ted it’s not, Dad’s Army it’s not – but Dev’s Army it certainly is and is therefore not to be missed.