Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 16 April, 2004

"One of the thieves [crucified with Jesus] was saved. It's a reasonable percentage," says Vladimir in another play of the 1950s by an Irish writer whose central character never appears onstage, Waiting For Godot. In Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow, one of two murderers marked for execution is reprieved, and the play follows the 24 hours in Dublin's Mountjoy prison before the hanging of the other, the eponymous and unseen quare fellow.

Kathy Burke's 50th-anniversary production for the Oxford Stage Company has been lauded over the past couple of months on tour. Seeing it on its arrival in London at the Tricycle amazingly, the play's first London airing since 1956 I would have to be a fool to dissent. This is cracking ensemble stuff. Burke and her cast of 17 men are spot on from beginning to end.

Behan's first stage success is more focused than the variety hotch-potch made of his subsequent piece The Hostage by Joan Littlewood. Burke has focused it further by trimming some of its musical elements. (The remainder are capably supervised by Philip Chevron.) What is left is not quite the exuberant mix often described. A vein of black prison humour runs consistently through the play, and not just from the prisoners. In effect, though, the relative rollicking of the first half softens us up for the subsequent evening and night, as the imminence of the quare fellow's execution makes everyone increasingly reflective and Behan gets to make his case against capital punishment in a powerful yet admirably unsentimental way.

Sean Campion turns in an excellent, typically thoughtful performance as Warder Regan, the archetypal "decent screw"; Ciaran McIntyre is likewise pre-eminent as the old lag Dunlavin, jocularly but firmly keeping the others in line and managing cheeky swigs from the bottle of meths used as embrocation, and Tony Rohr wheedles and whines expertly as Neighbour, the unscrupulous, ingratiating worm of the cell block. But as I say, it's the collective dynamic that drives the play, and Burke marshals her cast through it flawlessly. All the energy is there, all the pranks and gags, but you never lose sight either of the dehumanising grind, nor of the gallows' long shadow. Terrific.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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