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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hostage
Southwark Playhouse     February 2010

This almost shapeless razzle-dazzle of a play by Brendan Behan and Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop is about Irishness, pacifism, music, dance, a general disrespect for all authority and convention, and a celebration of theatre itself.

It's what Brecht might have done with brechtianism if he had only had a sense of humour.

That shared credit is necessary because the alcoholic Behan famously never delivered a complete script to director Littlewood and her actors, who had to improvise whole chunks of the evening, including most of the last act.

(The original production evidently also allowed for tinkering and ad libbing along the way, since I was surprised to discover that one of my favourite jokes, about Vat 69 being the Pope's phone number, isn't in the script.)

At the core of the play is a plot that keeps trying to be serious, as a Dublin brothel is commandeered by the IRA to hold a captured English soldier they threaten to kill if an Irish lad scheduled to be executed in Belfast isn't freed.

The English boy, is of course, innocent and non-political, and he does, of course, begin a nice little romance with the only virgin in the vicinity, a convent-bred chambermaid.

But everyone and everything around that story refuses to take it too seriously. The brothel keeper is a happy old souse who reminisces about the days when the IRA was really the IRA but whose politics now consist mainly of humouring a mad old Englishman who has comically converted to the Nationalist cause, while grumbling amiably about the whores of various genders who don't pay their rent.

Anyone onstage - host, prisoner, whore, john or visiting missionary - is likely to burst into song or dance at a moment's notice, with semi-obscene ditties like 'Don't Throw Stones at Your Mother,' 'We're Here Because We're Queer,' and 'The Bells of Hell Go Ting-aling-aling.'

Hoary old jokes ('Is he a policeman? - 'No, he looks respectable') abound, and the action even stops for a moment for everyone to complain about the playwright.

At its best it is great anarchic fun, and the most serious criticism to make of Adam Penford's new production for Jagged Fence is that it only intermittently reaches that level of controlled almost-out-of-control.

You keep sensing the need for more hubbub, more not knowing what's going to happen next but sensing that almost anything could.

When the production does hit that Crazy Gang tone it is as immensely enjoyable as it wants to be, and maybe as the run progresses and the actors relax it will peak more frequently and consistently.

Gary Lilburn and Stephanie Fayerman set and work hard to sustain the tone as the brothel keepers, Ben James-Ellis and Emily Dobbs are sweet as the lovers, and there are nice comic turns by Jonathan Battersby and Rhiannon Oliver.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Hostage - Southwark Playhouse 2010


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