I promised previously on Drinker with a Writing Problem to report back on ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ at the Riverside, Hammersmith once I’d seen it. Well on Thursday I made a bee-line back from the rather sober Oxford Media Conference to get back in time for the press night of the play.
As I emerged from Hammersmith tube I bumped into Grant Dean of Eidos (home of Tomb Raider) and his sweet little daughter. Grant and I know one another from the BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Committee – he went on to chair the Video Games Committee while I went on to the TV Committee to try and make the rest of interactive entertainment beyond games part of the mainstream of the Academy. I remember trying to convey to the TV Committee a concept I called ‘New Television’ (you can imagine how well that went down) and introducing to them, among a selection of other emerging sites, this new thing called ‘YouTube’ (which I’d only come across two or three weeks before). A couple of years down the track and Malcolm Garrett, Martin Freeth, Terry Braun, Martyn Ware, a few other stalwarts and I are still fighting that particular battle.
And there I watched a barnstorming performance by Adrian Dunbar as the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. A charismatic, cathartic, compelling performance.
The play was written by Behan’s own niece – Janet, daughter of writer and playwright Brian Behan. I saw her straight after curtain-down in the foyer and I’ve never seen anyone so charged. It had taken her six years to get this very well written, tight, witty script staged. What a kick to see it realised with such skill and energy to climax in a standing ovation. What a kick to hear your audience join in the singing – “Fair fucks to yer!” responded Brendan (whether that was in the script or not – no idea).
In the bar after, the superbly talented, modest and warm Brid Brennan, who played Behan’s missus, told me and the Missus that, from her experience, the kind of reaction the performance prompted from the audience that night was something very special. My Missus reckoned the turning-point was the scene where a drunken Behan crashes on stage at a performance of his play ‘The Hostage’ on Broadway – in his naturally ebullient way, he breaks into song (Adie has a wonderful classic Irish tenor voice) and the Riverside audience joined in becoming the Broadway crowd.
Equally stunned on emerging was Anna Nygh, Adie’s wife, also an actor. She’d heard him rehearsing the lines around the house (a helluva lot of lines as he drives the two hours of dialogue) but had no notion quite how much he was inhabiting the character – or vice versa… She summed it up by confirming ‘It’s taken his acting up a level’.
The action is centred on Behan’s room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd in New York. He’s struggling to write a book about New York of which he’s already drunk the advance. It’s not only his publisher he’s let down but also his mistress and baby son. And his wife Beatrice is just about to show up from Dublin. With a tape recorder on his desk and a pint of whiskey under his mattress, he reflects on the journey that brought him from inner city Dublin to the weird&wonderful diversity of the streets of New York, through which the paparazzi pursue him. One of the highpoints of the play is a Berkoff-like set piece when Behan enacts the moment a journalist lured him out of sobriety by sending a free drink over to him at a bar, three fellow under-cover hacks watching from the shadows.
The show is punctuated with cracking lines. Like the one about the definition of an Irish homosexual – a man who prefers a woman to a drink.
When Adie emerged from the dressing room afterwards, I had to congratulate him for making such a good fat man. He’s so slight in real life but with just a bit of a belly added beneath his shirt he played Behan’s drinker’s bulkiness with such conviction you saw it in his restricted diabetic movements and bloated lumbering.
What ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ showed above all was the paradox of a man who clearly loved life and spent every day trying to kill himself. He expressed a great fear of just being an ordinary human Behan which was why he disappeared to New York in the first place – he loved being immersed among the extraordinary flotsam of a big city.
The play is on until 3rd February – do yourself a favour…