Borstal Boy at the Gaiety Theatre

September 19, 2014

In 1939, 16-year old Brendan Behan was arrested while on an ‘unauthorised’ mission to blow up the Liverpool Docks for the IRA. Handing down his sentence the Judge rued the fact that- since Behan was underage, he couldn’t send him away for fourteen years penal servitude.

You’ll feel like Verdant Productions sent you down in his stead throughout this vulgar, three-hour money-grab. Star casting, unfocused direction and a failure to mine ANY relevance from Frank McMahon’s decrepit script, turns a powerful tale- about the tempering of nationalism by personal affection, into a calamitous free-for-all, without a moment’s gentleness expressed between characters.

Sent first to prison- then Borstal, for three years, the idealistic Behan learns to accept and respect his fellow prisoners, particularly a young sailor called Charlie, during his stay.

Director Conall Morrison’s production downplays this friendship -and it’s homosexual undertones, so that neither exist, choosing instead to have the large ensemble shout, pout and lout about the stage. It’s a four-car pile up of stereotype mangling any truth that could have been elicited from these relationships.

The tailback from this decision stretches all the way to the end of the play, which is irrevocably disjointed emotionally, and has a crushing impact on the journey Behan takes, ‘straightening out’ the tale to suit the perceived tastes of the audience here to see “Fran the Man” (a miscast but commendably hard-working Peter Coonan).

True, the director was hampered by the archaic text. But had he focused his actors to feel- not just shout, the words they were speaking, or to explore silence; had he found some way to visually elicit the emotions that could not be spoken in 1960s Ireland (when the play was first produced), it would have countered the youthful energy of the ensemble, who rush about the stage as if they have invaded it and then have no idea how to hold themselves once up there.

So many performances astound in their awfulness, almost exclusively given by the older actors, who use accents Catherine Tate would find excessive. There are well choreographed, if vacuous song and dance numbers, a set that enters and exits more often than the cast and some staggeringly unimaginative projections.

The tone also pivots like the Costa Concordia in Act 2, less like the movie SCUM and more like Privates on Parade, bearable only for the well-judged performances of Ruairi Heading and Emmet Byrne (though Diarmuid Noyes does all he can in a thankless part).

The rest of the ensemble can’t be held accountable for their actions, as Morrison is more interested in lining up excruciating visual gags that take us further and further away from the tone of the novel and who seems not to believe an emotion exists unless it is delivered with a ferocity that gives flight to phlegm.

At a time when questions about nationalism, cultural identity, xenophobia and fundamentalism are wet on our lips, to piss away an opportunity to explore them through the prism of Behan’s source material shows a lack of respect to the writer and the audiences abilities to come to terms with his work.

This is a poor aping of Joan Littlewoods’s style that shows no signs of the seriousness with which she took the issues at the heart of her work.


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