Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is set in Ireland during The Troubles on the eve of the execution of a young IRA member. The hostage of the play’s title is Leslie Williams, an 18-year-old English soldier who kidnapped by the IRA and hidden in a shabby but musical whore house.
The majority of the first act consists of ballads, farce, dancing and the odd political tirade. Although the meandering vaudeville begins to drag , the lilting, lyrical Irish burr is finally punctuated with plot by the glottal stops of the cockney hostage. Shortly after arriving, the apparently innocent, very alien soldier falls for Teresa, a fellow orphan, and discovers he will be executed if the “Belfast Martyr” is not reprieved.
Behan’s play exposes racism, terrorism, and youth’s betrayal by the old. But it is darkly humorous and traditional forms of Irish storytelling are used in Brechtian modes to interesting effect. The juxtaposition of the dark subject matter and the raucous tone is powerfully eerie.
The cavernous Southwark Playhouse is the perfect setting for this piece. The dark rumblings of distant trains add to the underlying menace of the play and the exposed bricks and arches of the structure give the feeling that we have snuck in to an underground political meeting or indeed, the illicit whore house in which the play is set.
The difficult, drifting structure of the play and vibrant energy and personalities of the 13-strong cast are brilliantly directed by Adam Penford, who keeps the frantic pace up while allowing quieter moments to punctuate the chaos. Heading up the cast of misfits and prostitutes is Pat, an ex-IRA man with a bad leg, played with authority by Gary Lilburn, and his wife Meg, a steely but appealing Stephanie Fayerman. Ben James-Ellis makes an impressive transition from musical theatre as the condemned young soldier, and his fleeting moments of happiness with the delicate and charming Emily Dobbs are sweetly childlike.
The Hostage has not been staged in London for 16 years and this revival is well timed. Although it's incredibly evocative of its time and setting, it is prophetic of the current political climate and by no means a period piece. The jingoistic Monsewer’s proud claim that there are “plenty of young men ready and willing to die of Ireland” is a chilling reminder of the ready and willing young men dying on both sides of the current war on terror. Don’t miss this.