The Quare Fellow

The Quare Fellow was written in 1954. This was also, ironically enough, the year of Ireland’s last hanging. In the play, one of the prison lags complains that the only thing the Free State changed was the badge on the warders’ caps. This was before ‘the troubles’ and long before the war came to the ‘mainland’. Given today’s relative calm and the exhaustion of the forces that once constituted Irish political life, such sentiments only hint at the conflict that fuelled the horrors of ‘judicial hanging’ that is otherwise rather glossed over in this production.

This is a more than competent directorial effort by Kathy Burke, working with the Oxford Stage Company following their 50th Anniversary revival that toured last year. And it has received deserved plaudits from the critics. The ‘warts and all’ realism will be no surprise to those familiar with Burke’s acting roles. Indeed, for those sitting in the front row the ‘slopping out’ of chamber-pots is all too graphic. The dialogue crackles with fine ensemble performances from the 17-strong cast. Sean Campion as the troubled Warder Regan is particularly impressive, as are the comic turns of the old-timers Dunlavin (Ciaran McIntyre) and Neighbour (Tony Rohr).

And yet Behan’s spit and sawdust Ireland bares little relation to today’s smoke-free continental wanabee. And Kilburn – the Tricycle’s home in north London, where many immigrant workers have settled over the decades, to endure the anti-Irish siege mentality as the war intensified – is not what it used to be either. Today’s newcomers are as likely to visit London for the ‘craic’ as their young antipodean peers on a stop-gap before moving onto more exotic backpacking destinations further a field.

In this context, Burke is helped by the fact that Behan assumes along with his intended audience the whys and wherefores of the incarceration of his affectionately drawn characters. One has to ask what the reception to his work might have been during the bombing campaigns of the 70s and 80s. Would anybody have dared to stage it? After all, he drew on his own experiences including a stretch in the play’s setting of Mountjoy prison on account of his IRA activities.

But in our post-political era, and as an alcoholic womaniser who died young, Behan’s reputation is perhaps less that of a forgotten literary figure (in Britain, at least) writing in a distinct political tradition, than that of a rather fashionable victim of his own excesses.

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Comedy Theatre, London

Whose Life Is It Anyway? rides the wave of the peculiar enthusiasm for the ‘right to die’. This used to be considered a rather eccentric and marginal cause for want of a better word – but a right? Claire fights to reassert control over her life, but to what end other than just that – the end? Kim Cattrall, of Sex and the City fame, plays Claire Harrison, a woman who, as the play opens, has spent the past few months hospitalised following a road accident that has severed her spinal cord.

One might accuse the production of cashing in on the box office appeal of its star, had the (male) critics not drooled over her evident ability to act ‘from the neck up’ and still exude sex appeal. There has been a mixed response to the play despite its winning the Society of West End Theatres’ Best Play Award when it was first performed in 1978. But Cattrall’s West End debut has wowed them nonetheless, with a performance that finds her ‘flat on her back’ once again. You get the idea.

But Michael Billington, writing in the Guardian, has described the play as loaded. She has ‘all the best lines’ he complains. But, along with Peter Heppel of The Stage, he likes the anti-patriarchal element. (After its initial run with Tom Conti, the play reopened on Broadway in 1979 with a female lead.) The fact that this heightens her perceived vulnerability is all to the good, the critics seem to concur, as she is seen to battle against the very male world of medicine.

She uses her womanly ways to flirt with the orderly (‘nice ass’) and the junior doctor (‘do you like my breasts?), and seduces the critics and the audience too. But, in the end, for all the witty asides and wicked humour, the writer, Brian Clark, doesn’t begin to make a convincing case for her wish to end her own life. As this is a topical production, he name-checks the usual suspects, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeve and Diane Pretty, and in so doing portrays Claire, like Pretty, as anti-heroine. She doesn’t yearn for the return of sensation or champion stem cell research as Reeve did, or hope to seek solace in the world of the mind like Hawking. Perhaps she can be forgiven for that. But instead she is tormented by the cutting short of her sensual self. That is what she mourns.

The other characters are little more than cardboard cut outs of tired clichés and caricatures made to elevate her victim-status – the patronising social worker, kindly yet buttoned-up matron, and the ‘doctor knows best’ Dr Emerson. William Chubb plays the consultant who holds to the unfashionable view that it his job to keep people alive. His junior, played by Alexander Siddiq, is patient’s advocate with a bedside-manner to match. Ann Mitchell as Sister Anderson is the kind of figure the ultra-modern NHS is welcoming back to put that pesky MRSA bug back in its place. Indeed, it is striking that not only the issue of euthanasia but also the rise of the ‘expert-patient’ make this play perhaps more resonant today than when it was first performed.

And yet I can’t help wondering why, for all its timeliness and the plaudits that Cattrall has rightly received, nobody has raised an eyebrow – with the exception of Billington – about its underlying message. It should go without saying that this is not life-affirming stuff. Even if art needn’t aspire to such a worthy cause, surely we expect each other to be made of tougher stuff, and should be interrogating the assumptions of those who claim to campaign on our behalf? The fact that this play hasn’t caused offence should be a worry for anybody who takes what, for once, deserves to be called a ‘life and death’ issue seriously. Why aren’t paraplegics jamming the switchboards or battering down the doors of the Comedy Theatre? It’s not such a silly question, you know.


C, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This stark production of 1984, by Debut Theatre Company, begins and ends with an impassioned ‘I love you Big Brother’ followed by a haunting expression – part ingratiating plea, part maniacal grimace.

Tim Hyams is superb as the tortured, defiant Winston Smith, determined to hold onto his humanity in the face of the eternal boot of the all-seeing state. The decision to portray Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare as a period piece is intriguing. The cast kitted out in prisoner of war garb and the old time favourites on the crackly wireless, contribute to its archaic feel. But this is more than Stalinist satire, managing to transcend its historical placing.

The use of nudity is – perhaps appropriately – revealing. Winston and Julia (Elizabeth Park) get naked, as if to portray what it means to be spontaneous and joyous. After enduring the hellish torments of Room 101, Winston’s slightly draped, broken and gaunt figure can resist the authority of Big Brother no more. We are witness to liberty and the taking away of liberty.

But how do we make sense of 1984 in an age when we invite Big Brother not just into our living rooms, but also into every nook and cranny of our lives to protect us from disparate enemies within. Not even the proles, especially not the proles, are free to roam beyond the gaze of today’s telescreens.

In a Month of Fallen Sundays

Metro Gilded Balloon, Teviot, Edinburgh Festival

In a Month of Fallen Sundays is spellbinding. The lightness of touch is admirable given the subject matter. As a physical ensemble piece it movingly evokes tormented, confined lives and also manages to be funny.

The Magdalen Asylums were Irish convents catering for ‘fallen women’, who were incarcerated and institutionalised for their supposed sins. But this isn’t a production concerned with the specifics of why these young women were interred, or railing against the social forces that put them there.

It is about what happens when human beings are denied their freedom; when they are forcibly removed from the world of choices. The mind becomes their terrain, their only means of trying to impose some order on the insanity of circumstance. Though sharing the same ‘room, of four walls, a bed, a wardrobe’, they were caught up in their own imaginations, playing out their pasts, imagining their futures while their former lives are suspended.

They aren’t mad, or at least they weren’t to begin with.

Son of the Father

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Pip Utton’s Son of the Father is an engaging affair. As an imaginative journey into the lives of Mary and Joseph reunited after the crucifixion it succeeds in posing intriguing questions for believers and non-believers alike.

For Joseph his son had got in with a bad sort, a bunch of ‘misfit revolutionaries’ with their ‘conjuring tricks and fairytales’. He blames his mother. She thinks he’s the Messiah. Mary had always filled his head with daft ideas. Carpentry was a good vocation, something to fall back on perhaps. Joseph doesn’t buy the immaculate conception either. She always was a little easy with her affections. When Jesus cries out on the cross, ‘Father, why have you deserted me?’, he takes it personally.

Giving the bible the ‘real lives’ treatment, and raising doubts about the resurrection won’t necessarily endear him to church goers – but it makes for a thoughtful and intense drama nevertheless.