There was a scrum outside the entrance to the Abbey Theatre, but it wasn’t for tickets.

There were raised voices, and a knot of people pushed against the glass doors.

It looked like it could get ugly. But it was simply the free market in action.

At the centre of the group, a man was selling prescription medicines. The others were junkies, thrusting cash at him, craving a slow-release hit.

The guards let them be. Inside the Abbey, the staff were nonplussed. And in a rehearsal room looking out onto the street, David McWilliams was making mental notes.

“I’ve been watching them all week,” he says, later.

“Economics is like drug dealing. At the very bottom of the market, down here outside the Abbey, they’re selling the worst quality at the worst price, and taking the biggest risk. That’s like people going to loan sharks, or taking subprime mortgages because they can’t get anything else.

But at the top, there’s the golden circle, where the drugs are pure, or the credit is free, and there’s no repercussions when things go wrong.”

The Abbey Theatre may not be the most obvious place for David McWilliams to be rehearsing his peculiar brand of popular economics, but his arrival there is simply the latest turn in a peripatetic career.

From mainstream economist, to TV and radio host, to cabaret compere (of the monthly “political cabaret”, Leviathan), to record-breaking author (of The Pope’s Children), McWilliams’s career path has been defined by his twin passions of economics and communications, and steered by a keen instinct for self promotion.

On Wednesday, McWilliams takes to the stage of the Abbey’s studio theatre, the Peacock, to perform a 70-minute theatrical monologue – about, literally, the state we’re in – called Outsiders.

(Outsiders runs till July 3, with Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Further information from or (01) 8787 222.)

The title is apt. It comes from McWilliams’s most recent book, Follow the Money, in which he develops the argument that Irish society is divided not amongst class lines, but between “insiders” and “outsiders”.

The division cuts deep into Irish society and back across the generations, he believes.

Working in the Abbey, he’s been reading JM Synge, and was struck by Synge’s description of the “gombeen men” of rural Ireland at the start of 20th century.

“They were the middle-men in Irish political and economic life. Their whole raison d’etre was extracting money from the peasantry.

“We have the same guys today, but they’re wearing Hugo Boss suits.”

In other countries, crises give the outsiders a chance to displace the insiders. But in Ireland, in the 1950s, 1980s, and again today, the insiders have used the crisis to cement their hold on power, he says.

McWilliams himself came through “the machine that produces the insiders,” from Blackrock College to Trinity to the Central Bank. Yet he both sees himself as an outsider economist – somebody able to cut through the guff – and appears to have a genuine empathy with the outsiders of Irish society.

His interest in the junkies outside the Abbey isn’t merely academic: he has worked in Mountjoy Prison and with the Merchants Quay drugs project. The characters that people his books, from Breakfast Roll Man to Miss Pencil Skirt, may come across at times as glib caricatures, but his creation of them is driven by a desire to make economics less of a dismal science and more of a tool for DIY.

“One of the reasons that I got into the media was that economics was never communicated properly to people.”

And, of course, McWilliams is an outsider in the theatre. He is working, though, with a consummate insider.

Conall Morrison is one of the leading Irish directors, known for his inventive, muscular, large-scale productions.

He made his name over a decade ago with an acclaimed adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn, and went on to direct on the West End and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

That’s a far remove from working with a solitary economist on some kind of cross between a lecture and a monologue. But for Morrison, the time is right.

“There are certain times when reality supersedes imagination – when the current situation demands to be addressed.”

There won’t be gimmicks, he promises.

“You won’t see David in a tutu.”

Instead, Outsiders is simply the story of how the country came to be in the state it’s in, and how it might climb out of it. It is, as McWilliams says, “testament,” not fiction.

That’s the approach the Abbey took recently to marking the report of the Child Abuse Commission, with journalist Mary Raftery’s dramatised redaction of the report, No Escape.

And in London earlier this year, the National Theatre staged a documentary play by David Hare called The Power of Yes, which was subtitled “a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis.”

As McWilliams says, “there’s an almost electric interest in economics now.” Whether he can convert that into electrifying theatre remains to be seen.

But as always, it seems, his timing is right.

Published in the Irish Independent, June 12.