“I only drink on two occasions –when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.” So said Brendan Behan*.
So how come the Whingers have never seen a Brendan Behan play? Well, to be fair he only wrote two. And this isn’t really one of them.
No, according to Wikipedia (and it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would bother making up this sort of thing) Behan wrote it in Irish and the English language version, “much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with Behan, is a bawdy, slapstick play that adds a number of flamboyantly gay characters and bears only a limited resemblance to the original.”
And it does show really. There’s the Oh, What A Lovely War! singing interludes and even a bit of breaking of the fourth wall which, as we all know, is how London theatre is panning out for 2010.
Talking of panning out, where was Phil last night? In Copenhagen as things pan out so it was left to Andrew to dip his uncertain and sadly unmanicured toe into the unfamiliar waters of Irish Republican literature.
The first piece of good news to report is that to see The Hostage at the Southwark Playhouse isn’t nearly as popular as The Rivals was so there is plenty of room to spread out on the bench seating which this week is arranged on three sides (while at the back of the performance space is a wooden staircase leading up to a very long wooden landing along which various cast members noisily run, seemingly most of the time).
Anyway, it’s 1957 or so and we are in Dublin in a large boarding house where most of the residents are prostitutes, one of them gay. The house is overseen by limping (Limping! Soooooooooo London theatre 2009, but it’s mentioned in the text so what’s an actor to do?) patriarch Pat (Gary Lilburn**) and his former prostitute wife (Andrew’s note to self: can this be correct?) played in a cardigan and distractingly anachronistic footwear by Stephanie Fayerman.
Andrew’s heart sank when it began because it started with Irish music and a song and a dance and frankly it wasn’t nearly as funny as the Irish dancing in Legally Blonde. But anyway, finally the play got going and eventually the action kicked in when it was announced that the IRA had kidnapped a British soldier and were bringing him to the house to hide him there until the fate of an IRA prisoner due to be executed in the morning was known. If the prisoner died…
The big surprise came when the hostage was finally delivered and turned out to be Link Larkin from Hairspray! That’s right! Ben James-Ellis, the runner up from Any Dream Will Do. What was even more surprising was how good he was (not that he wasn’t good in Hairspray) – refreshingly and almost filmically*** under-stated acting in which he was acting all the time but didn’t look as though he was acting at all and certainly not performing. Of course, this may have been something to do with him being just about the only character in the play who didn’t shout, wail, run up and down wooden landings, sing and play the drums. But nonetheless, he was rather good.
It’s a funny (not really in the ha ha sense) old play and – BJE aside – you can’t accuse the cast of not attacking it with gusto but after enduring two and a half hours of fervent Irishness it was a bit of a surprise to find Behan totally wimps out on the ending which really isn’t very satisfactory at all.
* More drink anecdotes about the man who described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem”:
- One day, at the age of eight, Brendan was returning home with his granny and a crony from a drinking session. A passer-by remarked, “Oh, my! Isn’t it terrible ma’am to see such a beautiful child deformed?” “How dare you”, said his granny. “He’s not deformed, he’s just drunk!”
- Behan generated immense publicity for The Quare Fellow as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts. A fellow guest on the show, Irish-American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: “It wasn’t an act of God, but an act of Guinness!” Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Brendan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said—drunk or not—but hadn’t a clue what “that bugger Muggeridge was on about!” While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play’s signature song “The Auld Triangle”.
- His health suffered terribly, with diabetic comas and seizures occurring regularly. Oh.
** Lilburn was also in the last Behan play to be performed in London – The Quare Fellow at the Tricycle. More interestingly, he was in Calendar Girls a the Noel Coward theatre with Brigit Forsyth and she was in the audience! And in the bar! Ben James-Ellis passed through the bar too and he wears very large spectacles!
*** Pronounced “fillumically” in Irish, probably.