BY PETER MCGORAN
Fresh from it’s run in New York, Janet Behan’s Brendan at the Chelsea is a wonder to behold. Every aspect of this beautifully written and carefully staged play serves to flesh out one of the most complex and baffling characters in recent Irish history.
Set in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, the play documents Behan’s life in New York in the early 1960s (just before his death in 1964) and shows him being pursued by an unseen agent for a book he’s yet to write, looked after by his frustrated minder (Samantha Pearl) who he struggles to keep his hands off, and hunted down by his wife from Ireland who tries desperately to save their dwindling marriage.
From the get-go of the play, where our anti-hero stumbles from his bed hung-over, Adrian Dunbar fits himself into the role of Behan hand-in-glove. Every drunken curse and chaotic rambling, every piece of levelled wit and tearful catastrophe, is so perfectly executed that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. Interspersed with scenes between Brendan and the other character of this story, we witness deeply personal moments where Brendan, alone on-stage, dictates what become the brutally honest memoirs of a man crippled with alcoholism. It is in these scenes that Dunbar showcases his effortless talent and Behan is realised on stage. Particularly evocative is the recollection of the moment when Behan finally fell off the wagon and spiralled down into the drunken state in which we find him.
Vividly imagined, also, are the psychological problems which Behan contended with during this time. From the critics who cast him off as the drunken ‘stage Irishman’, to Behan’s questionable sexuality, Janet Behan flawlessly dramatises the inner-workings of her uncle’s mind to further heighten the sense of turmoil in this character.
In terms of the supporting cast, the other characters are by-and-large unrounded (which is to be expected) and the Americans accents in the play tend to feel, in parts, slightly affected. This is only a slight criticism however and one of the few that I have to give. Pauline Hutton, in her role as Beatrice Behan, is a notable exception and is a suitable counterpart to Dunbar’s Brendan. Hutton is the only person able to contend with Dunbar who, overall, absolutely carries this show with deft acting expertise.
And on a personal level, what makes the play so marvellous is that you don’t have to know anything about Brendan Behan (I had a vague notion of his work before the play) to enjoy it. By the interval he’ll feel like your warmest, most raucous pal; by the end, you’ll feel like you’ve followed every step of his rollercoaster journey and will, no doubt, be on course to stand in ovation with the rest of the audience when the actors take their bows.
Brendan at the Chelsea runs from 31st Oct – 10 Noc at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. See website for details: http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/brendanchelsea/ (Students pay £10 for off-peak performances)