Having now seen The Quare Fellow in its transfer to London’s Tricycle Theatre, I have to disagree almost entirely with my Glasgow colleague below. Brendan Behan’s 1954 play doesn’t aim for fireworks but rather a deliciously slow burn in its slice-of-life portrayal of the 24 hours leading up to a hanging in an Irish prison.
As the minutes tick by and the related ritual tasks are ticked off, we become acquainted with the myriad prisoners and warders who populate this institutional community, as well as its visiting officials and hangmen, and witness the impact the impending execution has on each. Black humour, resignation, altercation, distraction, justification – it’s a wide variety of coping mechanisms that tell a rich tale.
And it’s all the richer in Kathy Burke’s 50th anniversary Oxford Stage Company production, which strips away the vaudevillian touches associated with Joan Littlewood’s 1956 British premiere. With her subtle directorial brush, Burke paints Behan’s prison portrait much more simply, allowing the situation, characters, atmosphere and, as more than a few commented on the night Whatsonstage.com attended, the sheer humanity of the piece to reveal themselves.
There are no stars in the cast and there needn’t be. The Quare Fellow is an increasingly rare thing – a large-scale ensemble piece – which, even rarer, is performed supremely well by a 17-strong all-male company that truly do work as one.
You’ll be hard-pressed to get a ticket since most of the remaining run at the Tricycle is now sold out, but you should know what you’re really missing out on. Something special, and very moving.
- Terri Paddock
Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from March 2004 and an earlier tour stop for this production.
Before this new Oxford Stage Company anniversary production of Brendan Behan’s modern classic even begins, a perusal of the capital punishment features in the programme has given me an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Will The Quare Fellow be too hard going? Any wariness is quickly dispelled by the humorous interactions between characters in the first act, however; so much so that we almost forget this is a play in which someone is indeed going to be hung at the end.
In an Irish prison, the unseen ‘quare fellow’ of the title awaits his execution. During the hours leading up to this, we meet the residents and warders of one of the prison’s wings, and hear their thoughts both on the hanging and on two new prisoners soon to be joining them.
Fifty years on, the dialogue in Brendan Behan's script still amuses. Unfortunately, Kathy Burke does nothing in her direction to make any of it memorable. Most of the humour, for example, derives from a build-up of innuendoes about an expected homosexual in their midst, but said prisoner’s actual arrival is anti-climactic thanks to a clichéd portrayal.
While David Rogers’ period prison uniforms are effective in transporting us back historically, his drab and simple set - consisting in the first act of a row of prison cell doors, and in the second of a raised platform upstage – focuses all attention on the actors’ themselves. That would be fine except that, in a 17-strong, all-male ensemble, too many of the performances are uninspiring. The exception to the rule is Ciaran McIntyre who, as Dunlavin, extracts maximum laughs through his spot-on delivery.
In Act Two, the light and relaxed banter is replaced by much darker dialogue and much more stilted performances. Here, attempts at black humour and that initial feeling of uneasiness returns, enhanced by Fergus O'Hare’s melancholy music, which permeates proceedings.
Of course, The Quare Fellow is much more about mood and character than plot. Even still, throughout the evening, you can’t help but hope the narrative will take a turn, to give us something we weren't expecting; it doesn't. After his own prison experiences, as an IRA activist, no doubt Behan was making a serious social and political point with this play. Sadly, at least in this production, his aims are let down. Execution or not, it all feels like a bit of a non-event.
- Laura Pearson