The Quare Fellow

Brendan Behan

Oxford Playhouse

(2004)

Review by Pete Wood

Seldom performed in recent times, this outing of Brendan Behan's slice of prison life - and death - is worth catching if only for its rarity. It does, however, have more going for it, not least the excellence of the ensemble acting and crisp writing which mixes humour, deft dialogue and theatre verité.

As the play opens and the men file out of their cells to slop out, we learn that one of two prisoners condemned to die for murder has been reprieved by the Minister who will be visiting the prisoner later that morning. If the play is not quite Porridge, it's not Scum either. It came as a surprise to learn, in the programme notes, that Behan, jailed in 1942 for attempted murder, rather enjoyed his time in Mountjoy, Ireland's largest and most notorious prison.

"When I was in Mountjoy everything was rather free and easy and very humane; a minimum of discipline", he said. This is certainly reflected in the larkiness, high jinks and banter of most of the lags. "You can have tobacco but only if it's Three Nuns - that's nun today, nun tomorrow and nun the day after", says one old hand. There's also a scene worthy of Porridge when two aged cons get a rub down with methylated spirit after complaining of arthritis. ("It's only the mercy of God I'm not a centipede", Dunlavin observes.)

But the treatment at the hands of a warder turns out to be a ruse to get a nip of the hard stuff when the attention of the guard assigned is occupied.

And there's more, mordant, humour in the third and final scene in the prison yard where a working party of convicts charged with digging the grave of the remaining condemned man smoke and gossip. One member, jailed for fraud, is outraged to learn that Regan, a liberal and humane warder, doesn't believe in capital punishment. "Doesn't believe in hanging? He's an atheist."

Throughout, the shadow of the gallows looms, though not in the way it would have when the play premiered in 1954, a year which saw the (last) hanging in Ireland at the prison of a man found guilty of murder. Interestingly Ireland couldn't recruit a suitable candidate for the position of hangman and was forced to send overseas, to Britain, to borrow one of ours. What that says about the difference between our two countries is a fruitful area for discussion.

Above all though, The Quare Fellow (as the condemned man is known) is a passionate critique, albeit a tragic-comic one, of capital punishment. The set, by David Rodger, is suitably oppressive. A black backdrop with view of two floors of the prison with a large sign demanding silence, railings, six cell doors, two pails with which cons muck out and four lamps above. This gives way to the courtyard of a prison with a wall, barbed wire and houses beyond.

There is the strong sense too that the juveniles who fool around and mock the old hands will be where they are now some years down the line. And the knocks and taps on pipes by which the prisoners communicate and preface the play, show man reduced to something less than human by the system.

There are some fine performances among a strong cast. I particularly liked Gary Lilburn as 'Holy Healey', cook and The Chief, Ciaran McIntyre and Tony Rohr as the old lags who have seen it all and Sean Campion as warder Regan. Christopher Logan also impresses in his professional debut at Shaybo, one of the two juveniles. Credit must also go of course to director Kathy Burke whose decision to quit acting may have robbed us of a fine character and comic actor but which has given us a very promising director.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Tricycle, Kilburn in 2004 and Bronagh Taggart reviewed its revival there in 2005.