Dave at Large: remembering and reinventing Dave Allen

New play on life of legendary Irish comedian stars Tara Breathnach, Michael Bates, and Bryan Murray

Tara Breathnach, Bryan Murray, and Michael Bates in Dave At Large.

Tara Breathnach, Bryan Murray, and Michael Bates in Dave At Large.

DAVE AT Large, a new comedy starring Bryan Murray, of Fair City and The Irish RM fame, tells the extraordinary story of the controversial and ground breaking Irish comedian Dave Allen, whose rise to fame saw him become one of the most challenging yet popular comedians and television personalities of his day.

The play, which comes to Galway this month, was written by Brian McAvera, who takes an unorthodox approach to the story, deploying three actors, one of whom is female, to portray Allen and also re-imagining his routines for a modern-day audience.

Allen was born as David Tynan O'Mahony in Firhouse, Dublin, in July 1936, the youngest of three sons. His father was Cully Tynan O'Mahony, managing editor of The Irish Times, while his mother, Jean Archer, was from England. Allen's first television appearance was on the BBC talent show New Faces in 1959. At the height of his career in Britain, he regularly provoked indignation for his frequent satirising of religious authority and political hypocrisy.

“I grew up watching Dave Allen from the days when he was a five minute guest on Val Doonican,” McAvera tells me, speaking from his Belfast home. “A while ago, in the wake of the continuing scandals around the Catholic Church, I remember thinking ‘If Dave Allen was still around I bet he would be hammering away at all these topics.'

"I felt that rather than write a play that would immure him in the past, doing a kind of ‘golden oldies’ set, it would be much more interesting to imagine the kind of routines he would be doing today. That was the essential germ of it. Because I am not a naturalistic writer it was a matter of finding a form for that, and then I realised I could fracture Dave Allen into three roles, one of which was the stage Dave Allen, which was quite different from the telly version. Then you had the telly version which was very laid back, usually with a glass in one hand and a fag in the other, and the third one I ended up with was what you might call the female side of Dave Allen.”

The ‘female Allen’ is portrayed by Tara Breathnach, while the ‘stage Allen’ is played by Michael Batres, with Bryan Murray as the 'TV Allen'. “It is not a conventional biographical show,” McAvera admits. “None of us are a single personality; we are like a collection of selves or roles and we all have a female as well as a male side.

"In writing the play, because so much of Allen’s humour and attitudes stemmed from childhood and his relationship with his parents, I wanted to be able to access those, but not from the overtly comic persona of either the stage or TV Dave Allen, so it made sense to have a character who is partly like one of your sisters and part like your mother; she lets you access the emotional element that most men try to hide.

"Allen’s routines show he was a very funny man but they give very little hint of the sheer pain that occurred at regular intervals in his life. On stage you have this representation of the female element and the two more combative males roaming the stage, so you get a rounded visual representation of him. As the play progresses we gradually learn more about the man so that by the end you have a strong emotional undercurrent that contrasts with the overt comedy of the piece.”

As well as being a dramatist, McAvera is also an art historian and has written plays about Picasso and Francis Bacon. His career in theatre, as both director and writer, goes back to the 1960s and I ask if he ever encountered Dave Allen in person.

“I never met him but I did see him live,” he replies. “Whereas on TV he was very relaxed and laid back, on stage he was quite different. He roamed the stage rather than sitting down. He was much more aggressive and he worked the audience in a way that an actor does as opposed to working to the camera. He was astute enough to know that he couldn’t do the same kind of performance in two different mediums.

"It’s interesting comparing him with Spike Milligan. Allen’s comedy is much more observational but it is also much more polished. He would work on a routine constantly in the studio. The craft of the man is worth emphasising, he would work to get his timing absolutely perfect. He was from that interesting period of the 1950s when lots of comedians from radio and music hall were beginning to break into television. That is another area that we look at because while it seems a simple thing to do today in those days it wasn’t. There were remarkably few who made the transition with any kind of ease, Dave Allen being one. I don’t think he gets his due in terms of his influence which is absolutely enormous.”

McAvera reveals that the play draws as much from his own life as that of Dave Allen: “While it uses some elements from his biography it uses just as many from my own. There were points that Allen and I had in common; his first gig was at Butlins and oddly enough my first job was at a Butlins in Somerset.

"I also realised the sharpness of his humour almost certainly came from the fact that he was an Irishman across the water looking back at Ireland, so you had a distancing effect and that was something I was very aware of - I can remember going into a pub in England and the moment they heard my accent everyone suddenly stopped talking and looked at me. I have used all that kind of material and what I’ve tried to do is to tell it in the way that Dave Allen might have told it if he were alive now.”

Dave At Large, produced by Directions Out Theatre Company and directed by Brian McAvera and Joe Devlin, is at the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday March 21 at 8pm. Tickets are €20/18 from 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie

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