After having one of the hottest tickets in London in January with The Rivals, the Southwark Playhouse had quite an act to follow and it has done so by reviving Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage, the first new production in the UK for 16 years. Opening with a song and dance routine as The Rivals did not really help to stop comparisons instantly being made, we soon moved onto to both a naked man appearing and characters addressing the audience, both of which have been in incredibly plentiful supply this year already.
Behan’s play is incredibly hard to define: it’s set in a brothel in 1960s Dublin where a young British soldier is being kept hostage by the IRA in reprisal for the planned execution of a young IRA member in a Belfast jail. The hostage is forced to share the space with the resident prostitutes both male and female, their customers, and a random selection of crazy individuals, but finds a connection despite everything with a young innocent housekeeper. It’s comic but tragic, it’s farcical but political: as I said, hard to define!
The play is anchored by Stephanie Fayerman as the madam of the house and Gary Lilburn as Pat her partner and former IRA soldier, their relationship holds the show together and their dialogue is the snappiest with a brilliant shared dry humour. All the other characters of the house swirl around either or both of them, in an often bewildering array.
The opening scene is great with all the characters coming together and an impromptu Irish jig and singalong starts. It really sets the scene in this bawdy convivial whorehouse and under Caitlin Shannon’s musical direction, the singing and instrument-playing (I saw a piano, a flute, a drum, a fiddle and a penny-whistle) was all very impressive. The action is then continually interspersed with Irish songs, although I found these musical interludes becoming increasingly intrusive. In the second half in particular, the farcical songs just arrested the action and I struggled to see what songs such as “Don’t muck with the moon’ and ‘I’m here, I’m queer’ really added to the play, dissipating the dramatic tension completely as they did.
Former Riverdancer Christopher Doyle’s inept IRA guard was the funniest character, stealing several scenes effortlessly with some excellent physical comedy. Ben James-Ellis, as the soldier taken hostage, had great clarity in his singing but needs to work on transferring that over to his speaking voice, too many lines were swallowed up in his approximation of a London accent and I’m not sure I was convinced by his naivete: would a soldier really be so clueless as to why he had been kidnapped? Emily Dobbs as Teresa, with whom a very fast relationship is formed was much more convincing as a girl straight out of the convent making a connection with the only other ‘pure’ person in sight.
The staging looks effective, with a wooden staircase and landing at the rear evoking the boarding house feel nicely, but using a small thrust stage with such a large cast, many of whom are onstage at the same time, means that there’s just too much going on in a very confined space, too much dialogue is lost and there’s an awful lot of watching people’s backs, no matter where you’re sat.
In the final analysis, if one treats this as a silly farce then all should be OK. It is certainly entertaining enough and I was never bored, all credit to the performers here. It is as unique a treatment of the Anglo-Irish relationship as you will ever see, but not one that I felt actually had anything to tell us.