The Quare Fellow
Oxford Stage Company
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
The opening moments of this production include three prisoners coming out of their cells to "slop out". It couldn't have been more graphically depicted, particularly as I had a bird's eye view of the chamber pots from my vantage point in the gallery. It set the tone for the evening - a no-holds barred, earthy view of prison life as depicted by the writer, Brendan Behan.
Set in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison in 1949, the play charts the journey of a group of prisoners in the twenty four hours before the hanging of "The Quare Fellow" (the name given to someone about to be executed). Though he never actually appears on stage, his presence casts a long shadow over the proceedings.
When this play was first performed in London by Joan Littlewood's company in 1956, Brendan Behan, had spent eight of his thirty-three years in prison or borstal for offences that included sabotage and attempted murder. The play is therefore based on his own personal experiences; he met and spoke to several "Quare Fellows" before their executions.
Dunlavin (played by Ciaran McIntyre), Prisoner A (David Ganly) and Prisoner B (Sean Gallagher) discuss the reprieve of one murderer who is due to arrive among them shortly and the bad luck of the second prisoner who will almost certainly hang the next day. The dialogue sparkles as they discuss the merits of each man. The reprieved murderer merely killed his wife ("Killing your wife is a natural class of a thing and could happen to the best of us") while the Quare Fellow not only killed his brother, but chopped him up too. Though the humour is necessarily black during this sequence, it might have played better with a more obvious undercurrent of doom. In reality, the prisoners would have been trying to make light of it while still thanking God it wasn't themselves.
Kathy Burke, well known as an actress in films such as Nil by Mouth and Elizabeth is now focusing entirely on directing. She has her hands full with a large cast of seventeen - many playing multiple parts - and at times, there seems to be too much happening for the audience to take it all in. The set, designed by David Roger, though realistically claustrophobic, doesn't always help. For example, there is a metal landing which clanks so loudly that some of the dialogue is lost.
Despite the energetic opening and the many humorous moments, provided by the young prisoners (Matthew Dunphy and Christopher Logan) and the hilarious sequence where Dunlavin and Neighbour (Tony Rohr) fight over a bottle of methylated spirits, the pace flags a little towards the end of the third act. This is in part due to Behan's writing as he leaves the final stages of the story mainly in the hands of the more reflective warders rather than the belligerent prisoners.
Behan used music to great effect in his work and the eerie song sung by the executioner's assistant adds to the depressive mood. Sean Campion gives a good performance as Regan, the warder who despises the part he is forced to play in another execution. He is part of the establishment, but he knows the establishment has got it wrong.
Though internationally famous by the time of his death in 1964, Behan's plays are not often performed in London. In the fifty years since the play was written, the issues tackled here such as executions, the illegality of homosexuality and the hypocrisy of the Church no longer apply. It's nonetheless a timely revival for his work, given the current topicality over prisoners' rights in trouble spots such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Surprisingly for a political activist, his plays are more concerned with the human condition and less with promoting the IRA cause. This production is a good introduction to a writer whose dialogue is riddled with the vibrant wit and laid-back humour of a Dubliner who doesn't take himself too seriously.
"The Quare Fellow" runs until 2nd July
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart