Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 4 February, 2010

One of the characters in Brendan Behan’s play opines that the IRA belong to the past. Half a century on from its composition, it is to be hoped that that remark is true, and that a collapse of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland does not resurrect the ’Ra. That’s not the only (at least potentially) prophetic element in the play: the Republican veteran called Monsewer, who wears a saffron kilt but speaks with an English public-school drawl, is a pre-echo of the actual first chief of staff of the Provisional IRA a decade later, Seán Mac Stíofáin (né John Stephenson in Leytonstone, London E10).
Above all, what the play catches is the dynamic co-existence of humour and seriousness, self-parody and sincere fervour, in Irish political matters – a note also sounded by Chronicles Of Long Kesh, Martin Lynch’s prison-camp drama which arrives at the Tricycle next month. In the case of The Hostage, this multi-valency extends to the very authorship of the play: Joan Littlewood, who directed the original English production and whose Stratford East company devised the final act themselves when a drunken Behan missed his deadline, is as much the begetter of this version as he was, and the opening night audience at Southwark included actor Murray Melvin, who in 1960 had taken the title role of the English squaddie kidnapped and threatened with death in reprisal for the judicial execution in Belfast of an IRA volunteer. The house in which he is held, however, is inhabited by a mixture of republican veterans, whores of both sexes and hypocritical prudes, all of them likely to burst into song at the drop of a bottle of stout. Indeed, at one point a performer takes their vocal note from the sound made by blowing across the neck of a bottle.
Director Adam Penford does a pretty good job of summoning up an illusion of informal, exuberant mish-mash, although the evening could probably do with a little less order still. Not a note of fake Irishness sounded in this pedant’s ears, and somehow even the rumbling overhead of the trains entering and leaving London Bridge station adds to the atmosphere. Following January’s production of The Rivals, Southwark is setting itself a high standard for 2010.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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