Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 5 December 2019

Theatre Review: Borstal Boy at The Gaiety Theatre

Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan
Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan

John McKeown

Gary Lydon is an appealingly dry and laconic Brendan Behan in Conall Morrison's production of Frank McMahon's adaptation of Behan's autobiographical Borstal Boy. Without sentimentalizing his teenaged self, played by Peter Coonan, he acts as chorus to his experiences in Liverpool's Walton Prison and Hollesley Bay Borstal with a certain tender lugubriousness.

The contrast between the idealistic Republican youth and the successful middle-aged writer who knows there's more to life than politics is very well done. The older Behan shakes his head ruefully as the younger let's fly at the priest in Walton - who wont let him attend mass unless he renounces the IRA - with a litany of the church's excommunications of Irish rebels and historic lack of support for republicanism. Though he's a little more proud when young Behan grandiosely berates Perfidious Albion from the dock before being sentenced.

At close to three hours it's a long production, with a huge cast and some impressive and highly narratively effective stage scenery, courtesy of Liam Doona, to manipulate, and young Brendan comes perilously close to being lost in what at times feels like a light-hearted musical. There are a handful of songs when we eventually get to the Borstal, one led by Brendan in the circle of his admiring fellow felons, singing 'The Zoological Gardens.'

But the popular wartime 'Hitler's Only Got One Ball' perfomed by the lads brandishing spades seems to come out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. The night they put on a nativity play also reeks of superfluity, particularly when the pantomime ass comes galloping into the manger where one of the lads is kicking his legs in the crib. 

A lot of time - the whole hour and a half of the first act - is taken up with Walton Prison, where young Brendan is sent on remand after being caught in Liverpool with explosives. Here the brutality of the Brits is dwelt on in loving detail. Not something I recall featuring too heavily in the book. Though it allows us to savour Ronan Leahy's reptilian performance as the prison warder Mr Whitbread.

Despite the singing and dancing and overly detailed depredations of the borstal boys we get a sense of what a fertile time the three years in Hollesley Bay were for Behan. Among his own working-class kind, and under a benevolent Governor, he grows in confidence, sheds his respect for the Church, acquires an appreciation of freedom, and adopts a less sacrificial attitude to his homeland.

Irish Independent

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