Friday 18 January 2019



Frank McMahon's busy adaptation of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy is a lot of things. Funny, charismatic, musical and so on. But a genuine classic? Hmmm, doesn't feel like it. For a start, it's too bloody long.

Behan's widely-celebrated, autobiographical novel might eventually make for a decent film (one without Danny Dyer, thanks), but 25 years after it was last performed on the Gaiety stage, Borstal Boy: The Play is still in desperate need of a good trimming.

But then, that's almost always the case when trying to adapt a renowned novel for the theatre. Too much left in; trying to remain faithful to the source, et cetera.

This is the story of how a 16-year-old Behan went from stuttering IRA-terrorist-in-the-making to prison inmate and cheeky-chappy borstal boy at a British youth detention centre in the early 1940s. From sticks of dynamite strapped to alarm clocks in suitcases to sharing 'snout' with the enemy. From having his head kicked in by a nasty gang of screws to playing one of the Three Wise Men in the borstal's Nativity play.

Along the way, Behan makes friends, says Mass and learns a thing or two about hard work. We won't fault the performances or, indeed, Liam Doona's ambitious set design.

Peter Coonan plays 16-year-old Behan. It's an enthralling turn, not least for an actor who left his teens behind a long time ago.


The inimitable Gary Lydon portrays Behan: The Storyteller; all grown-up and with a saying for everything. It's an inspired piece of casting (Lydon is the head off Behan), and his watchful narrator role makes for some of the play's more memorable moments. Both leads deliver awesome performances then, and the other borstal boys are in great form too.

It's the sprawling material, however, and the way in which it unravels, that lets everyone down. Behan's transformation from potential murderer to man of the match at Hollesley Bay feels forced. A promising dramatic set-up early on is abandoned in favour of fruitless scraps, cheap gags (that Nativity scene needs to go) and annoyingly smug musical numbers.

There's a lot of talking, and when so much of it feels superfluous to the end result you have to wonder if things might have steadily improved had director Conall Morrison scrapped a good 15 minutes from each act.

Not every 'classic' Irish play needs to pass the three-hour mark, lads. It's a good production - but it could be a great one.

Running until October 11 hhhii

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