Ben James-Ellis, Emily Dobbs, Jonathan Battersby, Rhiannon Oliver, Gary Lilburn, Stephanie Fayerman
Brendan Behans The Hostage was first performed by Joan Littlewoods pioneering Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1958.
This Jagged Fence production may not recapture the radical quality of the original staging but it certainly offers an entertaining account of Behans riotous comedy-drama.
The fictitious scenario shows how, in retaliation for the imminent execution of an IRA member in a Belfast jail, a British soldier is kidnapped and held hostage in a seedy boarding house/brothel in Dublin.
Amidst the licentious goings-on, the young cockney squaddie falls in love with a pretty, convent-educated chambermaid, as time runs out both for the unseen terrorist and for himself.
The play is an intriguing cocktail of political thriller, romantic intrigue and black farce, strung together with vibrant Irish vernacular and musical interludes. Behans essential humanity shines through in his portrait of the innocent lovers caught up in a tragic conflict, while he relishes the sleazy antics of the bawdily argumentative Dubliners. There are Brechtian touches such as actors directly addressing the audience and the use of music as a wry commentary on the action, but the overall effect is more warmly humorous.
Because the boozy Behan did not deliver the third act in time, it was devised by Theatre Workshop, and the structure of the play is very loose, with a lack of momentum building to the climax. To compensate, Adam Penfords energetically engaging production could do with a bit more dramatic tension: though the scenes between the lovers are touching there is not enough sense of impending danger and the bitter irony of the ending is lost.
Ben James-Ellis makes an appealingly boyish hostage, cheerfully friendly until he realizes his life is in jeopardy, while his sweetheart Emily Dobbs is poignantly torn between her compassion for him and loyalty to her countrymen. Stephanie Fayerman is amusing as the cantankerous madam, with her lazy ex-IRA partner Gary Lilburn very funny in his debunking of the younger generations activists. As an upper-crust Englishman reborn as an Irish nationalist, the barnstorming Jonathan Battersby is full of deluded dottiness, and Rhiannon Oliver is a deliciously hypocritical evangelical Christian more interested in mens bodies than their souls.
Musical director Caitlin Shannon oversees some lively tunes, while jig and reel choreographer Christopher Doyle performs a few of his Riverdance steps, to create a bar-room atmosphere. In the original production, Behan was eventually banned from the theatre because he kept on going on stage to join in the songs, but even though drink claimed his life prematurely a few years later, his anarchic spirit lives on.