Dave Allen - A Journey Through Life

The play has the comedian's trademark props and unique delivery, but never quite his genius

Most of the truly great comedians – the ones this world really needs right now, like the great satirists Dave Allen, Bill Hicks, Peter Cook and Spike Milligan – have gone to that great green room in the sky. Their fans are faced with two choices, either play their DVDs to death or try to recreate the essence of who they were and what they stood for, live on stage.

It’s dangerous and audacious territory, tampering with such comedic greatness, and can often result in dissappointment. However, in some cases it works, and can cast fresh light on the life of the comedy hero in question. One such success story is actor/co-writer Chas Early and his Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which previously featured at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast.

The slightly musty atmosphere in the historic Assembly Rooms tonight is appropriate for a comedic séance, as actor and co-writer Kieran Cunningham takes on the life, work and death of the godfather of Irish comedy, Dave Allen. A brave undertaking for a one-man show at 65 minutes.

I remember watching Dave Allen on television with my parents when I was four or five years old (and my Mum still wonders why I’m not a practising Catholic). Allen's skewering of authority figures – whether religious or political – was far ahead of its time. He paved the way for the likes of satirical sitcom Father Ted, which starred fellow atheist, compatriot and comedy hero Dermot Morgan.

Dave Allen – A Journey Through Life
is clearly a labour of love for Cunningham, and he has studied his subject closely. Physically he looks more like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Colm Meaney, but he nails Allen’s accent and unique delivery perfectly.

All the Allen trademarks are present and correct on stage. The high stool (described as 'the old woman – leather clad, round bottom, one leg, drinks like a fish, smokes like a train and spends her life with one leg up in the back of a Volvo Estate'), the drink (usually ginger ale on television, although Allen liked to let people think otherwise) and cigarettes, which although close to hand, remain unsmoked here.

There is some insight into the particulars of Allen’s life – the death of his father (an Irish Times editor and great storyteller) when he was 13, the failure of his first marriage, his brother’s alcoholism and tragic death and Allen’s own death before the birth of his youngest son. Most of the play, however, is given over to a recitation of his ‘greatest hits’. Karaoke comedy, anyone?

Tonight’s performance is entertaining enough, but doesn't quite hit the comedic heights of the master himself. How could it?

Shows like this begs the question: does the recent trend for dramatising the lives of dead comedians (both on stage and on screen) denote a shortcoming in the current crop of comedic talent, or is just another part of our ongoing cultural nostalgia trip? One thing’s for sure, they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Check out What's On for information on forthcoming events at the 13th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.