By Brendan Behan
Reviewed by Chris Helm
I first heard the name Brendan Behan when The Pogues covered his lament on prison life, ‘The Auld Triangle’ on their first LP. This song was not without humour but nevertheless was a bit grim.
I was expecting more of the same from ‘Borstal Boy’, perhaps something along the lines of Alan Clarke’s bleak and extremely violent film ‘Scum’. This play is certainly violent. For sheer brutality it would be hard to beat the scene in the gym where a prison officer is knifed across his groin. The resulting blood is drained off into a mop bucket by a cleaner who is so impervious to what’s just happened that you know he must have witnessed many similar occurrences. However, the play is more of a tragi-comedy than a relentless indictment of the prison system.
‘Borstal Boy’ is an autobiographical tale of the 18 months Behan spent in English prisons (including Walton) in his late teens.
Behan was an active member of the IRA in the 1950’s and was asked to smuggle what looked like an alarm clock and a few bits of wire over to Liverpool. Unfortunately, the young Brendan’s hormones were his undoing and in the play he’s surprised by the police while shagging his landlady’s daughter. They find his bomb and he’s arrested.
In borstal, he quickly becomes known as a troublemaker and even a fellow Irish prisoner seems to be against everything he stands for. Gradually he adapts to prison life. But the message of this play seems to be that while some can adapt to losing their freedom, others are completely destroyed by incarceration.
‘Borstal Boy’ has sex, violence, bad language and male nudity. All good stuff. The only jarring notes in this production were the slightly weak ending and a token Muslim character who could have come straight out of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. Other than that, another top production at the best theatre in Liverpool.