Behan's play, originally written in Gaelic in 1958 and then adapted into English and expanded upon the encouragement of Joan Littlewood, was only finished when Littlewood's company gave up on waiting for the author to provide an ending and improvised one themselves. It helps to know this history when getting to grips with the play's roughness and uneven structure; but it also explains its madcap ensemble energy.
We're in a tired Dublin brothel and lodging-house in 1960, whose owners, a pair of disillusioned old Irish patriots, agree to donate their cellar for the imprisonment of a young British soldier captured by the IRA. He is brought in and, far from being a quivering wreck, proves to be a likeable and cheerfully inexperienced young lad from down the Old Kent Road.
The murky reality of the situation is that the boy is to be held to ransom in exchange for the life of an 18-year-old lad due to hang in the morning for IRA terrorist activities. If the Irish boy dies, the English soldier's life will be taken in return. The house's various inhabitants, not least Pat (Gary Lilburn), the landlord and a veteran of the Easter 1916 uprising, are vocally sceptical about the tactic, which realistically creates no alternative for the hostage but death. And there is a deeper scepticism about the new methods of the Irish Republicans: stealth, subterfuge and untraceable campaigns of violence, in place of the glorious public battles of old.
But these ideas come in flashes, rather than being effectively threaded through. The staging is very good in one sense - in Southwark's cavernous cellar, a simple wooden staircase and balustrade give us the boarding house with all its entrances and exits through which people scurry like rats - it's "like a rabbit warren" as the IRA officer remarks. Whores, lodgers, friends and hangers-on wander constantly in and out, swig beer, tinkle on the piano and shoot the breeze. It's great ensemble work, refreshing and exciting to watch, and it seems a central purpose of the author to show us this casual gregarious life of Dublin's underclass.
The problem though is that through all the holes a lot of the tension seeps out too. Leslie, the soldier hostage, spends most of his time chatting to his captors, smoking, drinking, and even has time to have a fling with the servant-girl. For all the stony-faced authority of Charles de Bromhead's officer, he and his colleague must be the most ineffectual IRA guards in the land for the way they constantly fail to shoo the rest of the house away from the prisoner. And it means that the prospect of his death - which Leslie suspects early on, and becomes convinced of towards the end - is strangely underpowered. At one point Pat even saunters in and, with everyone else hanging about, casually hands Leslie a newspaper reporting his imminent execution. Among the constant playfulness of the group scenes, all the intensity of the central storyline is lost.
There are some other nice touches which hint to larger political debates. Pat, who is the essence of proud Celtic conviviality, seems uncomfortable with the new guard of the IRA partly because they are pious, disciplined and, above all, teetotal. And his friend, called Monsewer in mangled French, is an old Harrovian with a ridiculously plummy English accent, who has fallen in love with the romantic connotations of Ireland and knows more of its history and language than most Dubliners of the period. His batty support of the Irish cause seems to underline the dangers of letting a romanticised view of the ancient past govern the fight for the future.
Not that Behan doesn't succumb to romance sometimes himself. An interesting aspect is the play's constant use of songs - this is where its spirit of raucous community theatre comes out. It's not quite a musical but it is not far off - Irish ballads, Republican anthems and English street songs are worked in to every scene. The songs aren't meant to stop the show but to be an organic part of the narrative and action, and in this respect it succeeds. It's fascinating to watch, and in the case of the Irish reels and jigs, very enjoyable too. But this is songs not just as entertainment but as an assertion of culture and identity - as simple and powerful as waving a flag. It does mean, of course, that some moments of serious emotion are dissipated as another number wades in; and some songs, such as Leslie and the servant-girl Theresa's pastiche of a romantic musical duet, feel less smoothly integrated and rather too choreographed. Other moments of brazen theatricality are likewise more than the play can contain, particularly the sudden inexplicable waving of different flags and banners by every member of the cast at the end of the first act - Behan has subtler ways of communicating ideological differences, and doesn't need to rely on such exaggerated motifs.
Ben James-Ellis has a nice sweetness as Lesley, though he's a bit too boyish to convey the weight of emotion of his situation. Elsewhere in a fine cast, Emily Dobbs is excellent as the sensitive servant; Jess Murphy and Caitlin Shannon's fine musicianship graces the songs; and Lilburn commands our attention as the flawed patriarch figure who seems to wish he could only have the pleasures of the gathering without the burden of the politics.
Until 20th February
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury