Entertainment

Vote early and vote often: The Dundonald Liberation Army needs you

The Dundonald Liberation Army's valiant fight to free the area from the wicked clutches of Lisburn reaches its climax this month, as a colourful band of characters including Davy the Venezuelan, Horse, Shankill Susie and Norma Short make their last stand at the Grand Opera House in Vote DLA. Jane Hardy finds out more from the playwright, director and cast of a satire which knows where to find the audience's funny bone...

The Dundonald Liberation Army are back with their final show, Vote DLA, at the Grand Opera House. The comedy is written by Stephen G. Large, directed by Gerard McCabe and produced by Soda Bread Theatre, starring Matthew McElhinney, Matthew Forsythe and Jo Donnelly. Picture by Mal McCann
The Dundonald Liberation Army are back with their final show, Vote DLA, at the Grand Opera House. The comedy is written by Stephen G. Large, directed by Gerard McCabe and produced by Soda Bread Theatre, starring Matthew McElhinney, Matthew Forsythe and Jo Donnelly. Picture by Mal McCann

According to Stephen G. Large, the guy who wrote the satirical Vote DLA show having its final outing this month at the Grand Opera House, one positive legacy of the Troubles is the bleak humour. And hospitals.

“Both, I think. The Dundonald Liberation Army idea really just started off as a bit of a joke on Facebook," he says.

"There was a redefining of the council boundaries and Dundonald was the bit nobody wanted. North Down didn’t want it and east Belfast didn’t want it.”

So this unloved local council territory ended up as part of Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Soda Bread productions’ star vehicle was born.

Large adds: “You thought, ‘How the hell did that happen, there isn’t even a direct bus route between the two'. So we thought it’d be good if there was a paramilitary organisation to liberate Dundonald from Lisburn. And that had a lot of parallels with the overall politics going on.”

Rather like Leesa Harker’s brainchild, the Maggie Muff franchise, the social media success grew into something else. At what point did people love it and ask for a play and a production?

“They didn’t,” says Large, “but they got it anyway.” It has, of course, provided wonderful acting opportunities for its leads, Matthew McElhinney, Matthew Forsythe and Jo Donnelly. They play respectively Davy the Venezuelan, John 'Horse' McCracken and, in Jo’s case, two inimitable Belfast types, Shankill Susie and Norma Short, who is probably an Alliance councillor.

The Dundonald Liberation Army are back with their final show, Vote DLA, at the Grand Opera House. The comedy is written by Stephen G. Large, directed by Gerard McCabe and produced by Soda Bread Theatre, starring Matthew McElhinney, Matthew Forsythe and Jo Donnelly. Picture by Mal McCann
The Dundonald Liberation Army are back with their final show, Vote DLA, at the Grand Opera House. The comedy is written by Stephen G. Large, directed by Gerard McCabe and produced by Soda Bread Theatre, starring Matthew McElhinney, Matthew Forsythe and Jo Donnelly. Picture by Mal McCann

The author references the late 1970s political satire Citizen Smith, featuring the great Robert Lindsay as Wolfie, borrowing his moniker from the Irish revolutionary fighter Wolfe Tone.

The hit series was written by John Sullivan, the writer behind Only Fools and Horses, which the playwright presumably caught on repeats. There’s the same irreverence and near affection for those wanting to live on the edge, be it in the Tooting Popular Front or the Dundonald Liberation Army, but finishing in absurdity.

As McElhinney notes, his boyo is the last in a long line of glamorised figures in the business of terrorism or the armed struggle.

“He’s the top man or miscreant of the DLA and represents a portmanteau of all sorts of illustrious figures. Wasn’t there one loyalist paramilitary known as the Mexican?” Laughter breaks out.

I didn’t realise that Dundonald needed liberating but Horse and Davy the Venezuelan are undoubtedly the men to do it. While Davy – flash, over-confident and a man who wears a mean beanie – may be the brains of the outfit, Horse, his sidekick, is the moral compass.

The Dundonald Liberation Army hone their political messaging...
The Dundonald Liberation Army hone their political messaging...

Matthew Forsythe, originally cast as Davy, morphed into the guy with more gurning ability than GCSEs, as he told me later. “I enjoy playing Horse, he may not have the greatest intelligence but is crucial. I’m not sure I enjoy playing comedy more than serious roles – I enjoy both, but Horse is interesting to play," he says.

"The funny thing about us as characters determined to defend Dundonald against Lisburn is that both Matthew [McElhinney] and I are actually from Lisburn.”

So we get round to the big question: what is satire anyhow? A dictionary would say it’s an exaggeration of bad traits in society that illustrates the need to change things and show a different way. The playwright says he feels his shows aren’t just about politics, even though they are hilariously critical of what has been going on here.

“It isn’t just about politics, a subject people may find automatically turns them off. It’s about celebrity too in a way, the paramilitary WAG culture," says Large.

"I may criticise things but am not saying, 'This is wrong, this must be right'. I am not trying to correct things, but am taking the piss out of everybody. It’s equal opportunities satire, if you like.”

I wanted an illustration. The actors agreed to do a scene or two. First, we had an illustration of the bad stuff that is meat and drink to satirical playwrights. It dealt, naturally, with money and expenses, with Davy the Venezuelan, clearly nouveau riche at heart, claiming he was so thirsty after working for the council away from home that he had to stay over in a hotel and quaff quite a bit of thirst-quenching Champagne more or less for health reasons.

Then Jo Donnelly and Matthew McElhinney stepped up to the mark with a love scene between Davy and posh Norma. He confided shyly, maybe after a manly bevvy or two, that his mum had always said she didn’t know who his father was.

Then she had changed her story and told him, shock horror, that his dad had come from Lisburn. Collapse of spectators in the room, as both performers and the show’s writer are masters of bathos. This passage would clearly lead to a great big smacker, but not in this context.

Vote DLA posters appeared on lamp posts during the recent council elections, perhaps giving voters a tantalising glimpse of alternative political leadership...
Vote DLA posters appeared on lamp posts during the recent council elections, perhaps giving voters a tantalising glimpse of alternative political leadership...

Talking to the Vote DLA gang in an otherwise empty studio space at the Grand Opera House, it’s clear they are having fun with the climactic show. They even put up Vote DLA posters round town in the run-up to the recent council elections, maybe confusing some voters in the process.

The ambition is huge and if Stormont isn’t functioning so cannot be stormed at the moment, there’s always the Lisburn and Castlereagh Council chamber.

More seriously, the group have concerns about the fact Northern Ireland hasn’t a functioning Assembly at the moment. McCabe comments that this is a slap in the face: “We’re so jaded by it now. We’ve had years without government.”

Jo Donnelly adds that this plays particularly badly during the cost of living crisis: “We feel they’re getting a pay cheque while we don’t know what to do about money.”

Yet the arts community has as much spirit as Ms Donnelly’s characters, Susie who is “feisty” and Norma who will go toe-to-toe over her principles because she knows she is right. As Donnelly observes, many in the business have worked away in London or elsewhere but choose to return: “We may not make much money but theatre matters. We’ll say, there isn’t a lot of funding but let’s put something on anyway.”

Having noted the relatively low arts budget in Northern Ireland compared to other cultural centres – £5.45 here per capita, €22 in Dublin, £12 in London – the company defends their business, revealing why it matters.

Stephen G. Large says with feeling that “theatre is the only unfiltered version of what’s going on. People may say you should rein it in, maybe if you’re working for the BBC”.

But they clearly haven’t and they joke about there not being enough nudity in the play for Matthew McElhinney’s liking. Jo Donnelly adds: “It’s lovely in this show to have no fear, you just have to let go of preconceptions.”

Finally, we discuss the significant moment when warriors in the armed struggle turn to the democratic process and enter politics. Do the Vote DLA team think there’s a nostalgia for the excitement of the battle? Davy aka Matthew McElhinney has this one: “Yes, although you can get a lot done via democracy, there’s a lot of misty-eyedness. They never want to give up the DLA and the struggle.”

You have to wonder whether this is really the boys’ last outing, but apparently it is, even though other drama series of the Give My Head Peace variety keep reinventing themselves.

“You mean when people pretend it’s the last one, but go on as it’s good marketing?” jokes Gerard. Large agrees: “They’ve gone as far as they can go. There’s a kind of happy ending, with a sting in the tail.”

Catch this production if you can – it knows where the funny bone is located.

Vote DLA is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from June 13 to 17