When Brendan Behan's play The Hostage transferred from Dublin to London in 1958, he had to translate it from the original Gaelic.
Behan, a chaotic playwright to say the least, predictably fell behind schedule with the translation, which meant that the company had to improvise the third act themselves just days before opening night. This unconventional mode of production has evidently been trapped in The Hostage.
The third act in Jagged Fence's modern production at the Southwark Playhouse is still noticeably abrupt: characters' hitherto carefully crafted developments are cut short like a CD ejected before the song is over.
That said, severance is one of the play's central and strongest themes, manifested in partition politics and young death, so it is perhaps appropriate. In contrast to some of the key characters, this notion is well developed in Adam Penford's merry production.
For although Behan's young characters realise what they will never get to do and his old ones finally grasp what time and politics have kept them from doing, this is still a joyous and funny show, filled with quick Irish wit and evocative music.
The action takes place in a Dublin brothel in 1958 as the establishment's owners prepare to receive a British solider captured by local IRA officers. Old couple Pat and Meg, the sparring landlords who are surrounded by eccentric tenants, provide a robust backbone to an otherwise convoluted play.
Potentially powerful tableaux are underused, while some characters swap sexuality and others are repeatedly silenced just as their dialogue starts becoming profound.
Some players in this fun ensemble – notably Emily Dobbs' naïve convent escapee and Ben James-Ellis's genuine British solider – do their best to keep it in line. For the most part they succeed, but cannot disguise the fact that Behan's play is as shambolic as its author, who once described himself as "a drinker with a writing problem".
At least Penford recognises that he cannot do much else with the play but succumb to its anarchic rhythm. And, for his part, he makes a very good show of it. The contrast between young peoples' views on a conflict into which they have been born, and the perspective of the older generation on a war that has defined and directed their lives is stark and, although not powerful, moving.
There's certainly enough here to entertain Irish-philes: from filthy idioms to sweet ballads, many composed by Behan himself. In fact, Behan loved the music in this play so much that during its first run in Dublin he'd jump up from the audience and join in with the actors (before being banned from the theatre). Penford has certainly captured this playful spirit under the mouldy arches of the Southwark Playhouse: steal yourself and see The Hostage.