Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 17 January, 2008

Members of the Behan family can seem in constant eclipse by one another and yet simultaneously the most assiduous stewards of each other's legacies, all tangled together on the Twister mat of posterity. The one with his right hand permanently on Red is author and playwright Brendan, whose residency in New York towards the end of his life is the subject of his niece Janet’s play. This is apparently her second attempt to adapt Brendan Behan’s New York (1962) for the stage; she says her first try left out the booze, so it must have been a fairly short play. This, after all, is the man who once claimed to have taken the advertising slogan “Drink Canada Dry” as a personal challenge.
As Leonard Cohen might have put it: he can’t remember too well at the Chelsea Hotel. We see him dictating a couple of sections of the book on to a tape recorder (being by now so crippled by diabetes that he could not hold a pen); avoiding delivering chapters to his publisher; planning to go off with his mistress, but forgetting about her when he goes out on the lash and not having told his wife, who arrives from Dublin in Act Two, that he wants a divorce; and generally being a tribulation and an ingrate to his hotel neighbour George Kleinsinger and his minder, a young dancer. (Also, in a fantasy sequence, being fellated by Lauren Bacall.)
With the right hairstyle, Adrian Dunbar looks surprisingly like Behan; he has also captured the intrusive “-ah-” with which the Dubliner punctuated his more formal utterances. Bríd Brennan as his wife Beatrice is remarkably stoical for most of her time onstage, and Eva Crompton as dancer Lianne gets the concern and frustration but not the accent, which veers between Brooklyn and Bolton. The play itself is rather too programmatic: a first-act press conference is transparently an excuse to collect a bunch of Behan’s greatest epigrams (including the one about critics being “like eunuchs in a harem”), and the second act is just as obviously all bent towards a pair of scenes, the first involving the plain-talking concern of George, the second an increasingly bitter row with the newly arrived Beatrice. It makes for an entertaining portrait, but not a radically illuminating one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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