Brendan Behan’s Women
Pentameters Theatre, London
Until July 20
★★★★ (out of five)
“JESUS, look at the state of ye,” cries Beatrice Behan at her sorry husband, the famed but fading writer Brendan, dishevelled and slumped over at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
It’s 1963. A portrait of JFK hangs on the wall of the lounge of the renowned pile over plush sofas and a well-stocked drinks cabinet.
Brendan’s long-suffering wife has made the trip over from Dublin to confront her husband, and to have it out with Valerie Danby-Smith, Brendan’s secretary and lover.
That’s the tangle of Hastings-based playwright Tom O’Brien’s historical drama Brendan Behan’s Women – a show that, notwithstanding a stuttering first half –hits the mark.
It’s a baking hot night in north London. An air of authenticity is lent as, in addition to the stray dog sound effects of downtown NY, revellers line the streets outside Pentameters and lend an appropriate buzz to the background.
O’Brien here is liberal with his use of Behan’s best lines – delivered convincingly throughout by Matthew Ward – as the play opens amid high jinks.
The inevitable confrontation scene between Beatrice (Fiona McGahren) and Valerie (Amanda Lara Kay) follows shortly after.
The first half disappoints a little. With two prior shows cancelled, this is the very first night and the odd fluffed delivery can be forgiven.
At times though, the drama (a rapid 35 minutes each way), feels hurried.
For example, when told that Valerie is pregnant Behan leaps up with joy professing that he’d always wanted kids.
It’s hardly a realistic response from a man who’s just been told by his mistress she is expecting.
And Lara Kay’s Irish warble isn’t totally convincing.
However, most of the plot twists done, the second period is worked through slower and really turns things around.
O’Brien plays the writer’s demise – who is now deep into illness caused by his alcoholism – carefully and doesn’t shirk from his IRA past as the mood darkens.
Suddenly, lights dim and Ward drops to his knees. On the carpet of the purgatorial lounge – famed for its excess, most significantly here, Dylan Thomas – Behan prays for his unlikely salvation.
Behan knows that – unlike obvious comparisons of Beckett and Joyce who, although failing in health, were still making significant work in old age, he’s “finished as a writer”.
Ruined by booze, the “drinker with writer problems” realises, with pathos, that he’ll never write anything of note again or, as it dawns on him, be around to see his children grow up.
Brendan Behan’s Women runs at Pentameters Theatre, in Hampsted, London, until July 20 (exc. Mondays). Box office: 0207 435 3648