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Dev's Army
Published on Friday, 15 July 2011

5 stars

Underground Venues - Pauper's Pit
8, 14 Jul, 3:15pm-4:15pm; 9, 16 Jul, 4:45pm-5:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Dev's Army is an unmistakably Irish play, yet filled with clever dissonance for an audience on this side of the water.  It's set at the beginning of the Second World War - the event which, according to the British collective consciousness, most defines the hundred years just gone.  But the script sets the war in the wider context of Ireland's century, projecting backwards to Easter 1916 and forwards to Good Friday 1998, and reminding us that - for all we're neighbours - our two nations have very different perspectives on the key events of our recent past.

A well-crafted audio montage sets the scene. It's 1940, and president Éamon de Valera - the "Dev" of the show's title - doesn't really have an army to his name. But Ireland does have its equivalent of the Home Guard: so in an isolated hut by a windswept beach, two old veterans keep watch, waiting for an enemy who will never come.  It's an evocative setting, captured by one of the most quietly effective sets I've seen this Fringe, and the same attention to detail continues throughout the performance - to the extent that, when the actors return to stage after stepping outside, their boots actually are wet.

The two old soldiers are a mismatched pair: Dermot fought for the Crown in the Great War, while for Paddy, the greatest war of all was Dublin's Easter Rising.  Paddy dares ask the question which now is unthinkable - whether the Nazi yoke would be preferable to London's - yet Dermot embodies uncomfortable realities too, as a living reminder that not everyone in the South was on the rebels' side.  It's an elegant and hugely effective way to give voice to this debate, which few in the Buxton audience will have confronted before; and the third of the soldiers, Dean the dim-witted apprentice, plays Everyman as they battle for his heart and mind.

There's plenty of humour, both physical and verbal, contained in the three men's enforced isolation - and the actors play their hands perfectly, bringing out the script's inherent wit without descending to overtly stereotyped comedy.  Dean's wide-eyed gullibility proves a particularly rich seam, triggering a host of gentle one-liners and entertaining misunderstandings.  Later, though, the arrival of an outsider heralds a tenser, more psychological phase - exposing the fault lines in the older men's relationship, and the wars they still fight in their minds.  Richard Sails is particularly effective as Paddy, the strong but ageing soldier, whose memories of glory may not be entirely reliable but who dreams of hoisting a flag above the GPO in Dublin again.

The switch from humour to drama is sudden, but convincing; if anything, the visceral blood-soaked ending is a little too stomach-churning for my taste.  I have to say, too, that if you're unfamiliar with the very basics of Irish history, some of the script might leave you behind.  But whether or not you know what happened at Kilmainham Gaol, there's plenty to learn from Dev's Army - and the spellbinding characterisation of the quietly warring men makes that education a pleasure.  It's a breathtaking debut from Elysion Productions, who I'm sure are destined to take this play further; don't miss the chance to see it in this wonderfully intimate venue.

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