Review: #brendanchelsea at @lyricbelfast

Brendan at the Chelsea at the Lyric Theatre

This piece of writing by Behan’s niece Janet, is real and immediate; we are right there in New York with Behan and his cohorts in an untidy bedsit in the Chelsea hotel in downtown Manhattan, a hotel which today would be called boutique, the place where artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and eccentrics stayed, so Behan fitted in perfectly. He’s being minded by a beautiful young dancer (Samantha Pearl) and a composer (Richard Orr) who love the man and worry about his drinking, even try to talk him into getting help but it was too late.

It’s four years before Behan’s death in 1964 at the age of 41, he’s trying to dictate ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’ into a tape machine, something he hated doing preferring to write or type his books and plays. It’s not going well, he’s distracted both by his diabetic illness and his craving for alcohol. Then life in the Chelsea is thrown into a state of panic when news comes through that Mrs. Beatrice Behan (Pauline Hutton) is on her way to the hotel. This means phone calls to Behan’s lover and mother of his child and rearranging his disorganised life.

This play revolves around actor Adrian Dunbar who lives the character, a man he has studied for many years and he certainly gets into the heart of the Irish phenomena. I found Dunbar’s mannerisms, his mutterings and his body language fascinating although I felt he was a bit too smart with polished shoes and well ironed trousers. Brendan was a ‘toughery’ man, carrying a paunch, untidy in mind and body. I met him the week before he died and although he was in a dreadful state, there was still a charisma surrounding him. Dunbar captured the charisma.

We suffer with him through the horrors of alcoholic DTs the writer imagines he’s in hospital, his wife (Pauline Hutton) is there with nurses (Orr and Chris Robinson), it’s uncomfortably funny and very sad. So is the solitary discussion he has with himself about temptation. Trying to overcome his drink problem, a journalist slides a glass of brandy in front of him and, although he knows four ‘hacks’ are watching, pencils poised and cameras focused, he rationalises – should he sip it to prove he can stop or turn away and disappoint them. In the end he drinks the brandy and falls off the wagon.

Dunbar not only brings Behan to life, he also directs Behan at the Chelsea with skill. There’s no hanging around, the five members of the cast work closely together. With the play into it’s third reincarnation, first at the Lyric a couple of years ago and then the recent visit to New York, the wheels are well oiled although for the audience it can be disturbing looking in at this complex and raw episode in Behan’s life.

In the end most people turned their backs on Behan both in America and in Ireland yet he was still considered a deeply talented broth of a boy, whose retorts were funny and astute. “I only drink on two occasions, when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.” And he tells us, he started young. One day, returning home with his beloved granny from a drinking session, a passerby remarked ‘Isn’t it terrible to see such a beautiful child deformed.’ ‘He’s not deformed,’ said his granny, ‘he’s just drunk.’

This play is earthy to put it mildly but it’s a work of art from the direction, the acting, well researched set design to the lighting and sound.
Was Behan a gifted genius or good story teller with a gift of the gab? I urge you to make your own decision; see this play before it closes on 10th November 2013.

Review by ANNE HAILES.
Read more of Anne’s reviews here.

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