The Quare Fellow

Written by Brendan Behan, directed by Kathy Burke
Liverpool Playhouse, 17th February 2004

Reviewed by Julian Bond

Set in 1950s Dublin, this is Brendan Behan’s story of prison life and in particular the death penalty.

Kathy Burke - more known for her TV work – directs the play and is now dedicating her time to theatre productions.

What can we say about this interpretation? Well, in one sense, it would be hard to say that anything was wrong. There was no wooden acting and some performances stood well above the competent, particularly Jay Simpson's cheerily contented Hangman. There was conventional use of stage settings to show first a prison corridor, then a courtyard, with backdrops of the Dublin cityscape beyond. The audience clearly found Irish prison slang to their liking and the play was given a rapturous ovation at its conclusion.


I was dissatisfied with the whole proceedings. The tone set did not utilise the weight of the text - humour included - and was far too light. My companion of the evening succinctly described it as 'like Porridge with Irish accents'. I watched from a distance rather than feeling involved on any emotional level (surely the point of good theatre?). The play attempted - but failed - to get beyond the jokey, which was a shame because Behan's words invite more than simple shenanigans.

I also take issue with the staging. Actors were incorrectly positioned - being too far in the background - came and went without any consideration being given to the dramatic effect of stage entrances (with a few exceptions) creating unwarranted distance when the opposite should have been the case, prison corridor railings further prevented emotional proximity, without the justification of highlighting the prisoner's segregation from us as members of the public. This - combined with the raised stage - leads acting away from emotional performance to mere 'spectacle'.

In sum, this is conventional, comfortable, 'warm the cockles of your heart' theatre (highly ironic given the subject matter), and if this is all you want then this is the production for you.

However, having said all that everyone I met afterwards thought the play was excellent but I would wish to see an adaptation that does justice to the material and takes it beyond the theatre of gaffes. It is not the case of a lack of technical ability, rather inclination. And I guess that's a matter of taste, a bit like Porridge, if you'll excuse the gaffe....