Dave Allen – A Journey through Life

Newry actor and writer Kieran Cunningham pays homage to one of Ireland's greatest satirists

Newry-born actor and writer Kieran Cunningham has taken his love of Irish comedy legend Dave Allen to its ultimate extent: a one-man show based on the satirical humorist’s life.

Having already wowed the Edinburgh Festival and sneaked in a couple of hometown dates in November 2011 and February 2012, Cunningham brings At Large: Dave Allen – A Journey through Life to Belfast and Armagh next month.

‘I had an idea about doing a show,’ he explains, ‘but rather than me just going on as an actor impersonating Dave Allen, I wanted to do something different.’

Blurring the lines between impersonation, tribute, biography, fantasy, play and stand-up act, At Large: Dave Allen – A Journey through Life is a labour of love for its creator. An Allen fan since childhood, Cunningham recalls being just old enough to be allowed to stay up to watch the BBC’s Dave Allen at Large series. He even remembers the very first time he saw the star.

‘It was a great sketch where he’s on the pulpit, talking about an actress that died, and he’s eulogising about her, about how she loved the arts and drama, and she goes through to be cremated. The curtain comes across, then it opens again and she comes out and they all stand up and applaud.’

Broadcast between 1971 and 1979, Dave Allen at Large established Allen’s trademark routine of sitting on a stool, nursing a whiskey and a cigarette as he reeled out dry-as-sand polemics. This 'sit-down' stand-up was mixed with elaborately executed sketches that continued the themes touched upon in the monologues.

Allen’s style was observational rather than joke-based, reflecting on the idiocies of life and often savaging authority figures, most notably politicians and the Catholic Church. It’s an approach widely used by today’s funnymen and women, but it was out of step with the prevalent mother-in-law gags and crude racial stereotypes of the 1970s.

‘Allen was very much ahead of his time’, says Cunningham. ‘He’s a classic example of that phrase. You look at all the stuff that’s going on with the Catholic Church now, and it’s all relevant to what Allen was saying all those years ago, when nothing was said. He was years ahead.’

Unwieldy title aside, At Large: Dave Allen – A Journey through Life serves as both an entry point into Allen’s work for the unfamiliar, as well as a nostalgic treat for long-time fans. Indeed, Cunningham says that some serious acolytes of the Dublin-born comic have come to see the production, and most are won over.

The show has even attracted the odd celebrity attendee. ‘In Manchester, Steve Coogan came with his family,’ Cunningham says. ‘Steve’s a contemporary of mine – I went to drama school with him for three years – and he absolutely loved it.’

The County Down emigrant has lived in Manchester for 23 years (‘on and off’), but has never lost his rapid-fire Newry brogue. ‘You never lose that,’ Cunningham laughs. ‘Lose that, you lose the identity altogether.’

Now 46, he has worked prolifically in theatre and television (everything from Game of Thrones to Emmerdale), but it is his note-perfect take on Allen that seems to be making his name. The Belfast date – one of the many highlights of the 13th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival – has already sold out, and it’s not the first.

‘We opened this show last year at the Manchester Royal Exchange, and it sold out to the extent that we had to put extra evening shows on,’ Cunningham marvels. ‘I thought for a second that I was popular, but it was definitely Dave Allen that was popular!’

In fact, he may be even more popular after Cunningham is finished with him. ‘There have been people who have come to the show with their parents who have told me they can’t even remember Dave Allen,’ Cunningham says, ‘and they’ve left saying, “We’re now Dave Allen fans.” He appeals to all ages, right across.’

Working with Allen’s estate, Cunningham has striven to put on a respectful performance. ‘It’s not just funny, funny, funny,’ he stresses. ‘There are sad moments. We talk about his upbringing in Dublin and the effect his father’s death had him at the age of 12, and the effect his brother’s death had on him, later in life, in London, when he died of alcoholism.’

Allen himself passed peacefully in his sleep in 2005, aged 68, just as many of his contemporaries were beginning to be rehabilitated into the modern comedy scene.

‘Even as a 68-year-old – which is relatively young – he was becoming a grumpy old man,’ says Cunningham. ‘I often wonder what he would have thought of a lot of today’s comedians. Some he would have liked, and some he would have thought, “No.”’

At Large: Dave Allen – A Journey through Life is at the Assembly Rooms, Belfast, on May 3 and the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on May 4.