Adrian Dunbar Stars in Brendan at the Chelsea

The actor and director returns to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast following a successful run off Broadway

For an actor, performing on Broadway is the big one, the luvvie Everest. When Adrian Dunbar made his New York debut in September 2013, opening off Broadway in Janet Behan's acclaimed play, Brendan at the Chelsea, he got a stunning review from The New York Times.

The paper that can make or break a production reported enthusiastically, almost breathlessly, that 'In the title role, Mr Dunbar, who also directed, exudes a feckless, erratic and spellbinding charisma. Mr. Dunbar, who originated the role in 2008, is alternately charming and scathingly abusive... His performance alone makes Brendan at the Chelsea a must.'

The punters in the stalls liked it too, and as we chat in Belfast's Lyric Theatre cafe, a punter approaches to say that he found Dunbar brilliant as Behan when the play had its premiere in the Lyric back in 2011. Asked how he recreated the quare fellow Brendan Behan, Dunbar admits that he didn't method act the famed alcoholic and writer.

'No, that would be silly, but I drew on his identity as a writer who broke new ground. He was the first to put the great events of the day into the mouths of the working class, where previously it was only the middle classes who featured in plays.'

As Dunbar, a passionate talker like Behan, goes on to point out, Brendan Behan didn't exactly emerge from the chattering classes. 'He didn't go to university and learnt everything he knew in borstal. Behan had nobody to support him but the working classes, who still love him and his work. He remains popular with the Irish diaspora in Dublin and London.'

After devouring Behan's plays – 'I did a lot of reading' – Dunbar listened to recordings of the man talking to get the correct voice patterns before stepping on stage as the larger-than-life author. In collaboration with Janet Behan, the actor/director brought together a 'realistic' portrayal of the 1960s star on the downward curve of his life. 'We looked at his alcoholism, his sexuality and his politics.'

Unlike Behan, however, Mr Dunbar didn't stay in a hotel during the American run. 'I was in a nice apartment as, after a while, a hotel room is too small,' he says. 'You need to be able to make a cup of tea and a piece of toast. I took my own tea with me.' What sort? 'Oh, Nambarrie.'

From the beginning, exporting this rich show to New York was Dunbar's ambition. 'From the first time I did a reading of the play at the National Theatre in London in 2005, I knew I wanted to take it over. It's a New York-centric piece, set in that iconic place, the Chelsea Hotel with its history.'

Yet the vagaries of taste are sometimes difficult to call, and Dunbar admits that in his stellar film and theatre career, he has sometimes got it wrong in the past. 'Some pieces have gone right that I didn't think would go right, and some have gone wrong when I thought they'd take off. For example, Shooters and The Near Room, both excellent low budget British films in my view.'

 

Born in Enniskillen in 1958, Dunbar has lived in England for many years. Recently relocated from Crouch End to Highgate – 'Downsized and upgraded, yes' – he has a great anecdote about the recent rumour that none other than Bob Dylan was interested in buying a house in his north London borough that is also home to Dave Stewart.

'We were all very excited that Dylan was coming to Crouch End,' Dunbar begins. 'There are two roads. One is Crouch Hill and one Crouch End Hill, and he turned up at number six in the wrong road, looking for Dave Stewart's studio. A woman answered the door. He asked, "Is Dave at home?" She said yes but he was out and he could wait if he wanted. Then she phoned her husband, Dave, a plumber out on a job, and told him Bob Dylan wanted to talk to him. They got some signed LPs out of it.'

Helping Dunbar convey the feel of Behan's louche existence at the Chelsea Hotel – where so many iconic artists like Behan, such as Sid Vicious, Janet Joplin and Charles Buwkowski stayed over the years – is Belfast actor Richard Orr. He plays four characters, including Behan's friend George. Orr says: 'He's the one who tried to help him, told him he was such a talented man, but by then he couldn't write because of the alcoholism.'

Orr is a Lyric habitue, having appeared in 25 shows in the theatre over the years. He says the thing he most admires about Dunbar's stint as Behan is the fact that he has taken on the joint role of actor and director. 'How he got the third eye I can't say, but it isn't easy when you're in every scene too. I really respected him for that. Adrian would listen to your views too and trusted your viewpoint. He's not a dictator.'

It was worth it since, as Orr indicates, few plays have had such a 'universal response'. And as the guy who paid Dunbar the compliment during our chat proved, Brendan at the Behan has become many people's favourite show since the Lyric reopened. The final word must go to Dunbar. Where would he place the role of the great talker, writer and drinker in his CV? 'Oh, in the top five.'

Brendan at the Chelsea runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from October 31 to November 10. Adrian Dunbar is also In Conversation with Mark Phelan at Queen's University at 1pm on November 7. Main image by Colin Davidson.