Brendan at the Chelsea

Adrian Dunbar is 'the monster at the centre of the maze' as Brendan Behan at the Lyric Theatre

In the song 'Reminisce Part 1' by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, singer Kevin Rowland tells his band mates about the time he travelled the pubs of Dublin 'searching for the spirit of Brendan Behan'.

He is advised by one patron to try New York. 'New York?' sputters a band member. 'But that’s 3,000 miles due west!' And so it proves with Janet Behan’s play Brendan at the Chelsea, now back at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast having been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The set is gorgeous. I’ve never been to the Chelsea Hotel, and I’ve certainly never been there in the 1960s, but Stuart Marshall’s design is straight from Barton Fink’s Hotel Earl: the grudging blanket, the battered leather sofa and the liverish wallpaper. Those smeared windows and the moth-dusty angle-poise lamps.

A school’s radiator squats centre stage, half in shadow. There is a blast of cool jazz followed by a spluttered 'Jaysus', and Brendan Behan rises from beneath his shroud to shiver and shout and bellyache through another day.  And it is Brendan Behan. It may say Adrian Dunbar in the programme. He maybe a bit taller, thinner and, improbably, a bit older than the Behan you know, but most assuredly it is him.

There is no sense of a performance here. Dunbar, who also directs, inhabits the role utterly – the words roll off his tongue with conversational ease. He clearly enjoys the sensuality of the language, addressing only the cluttered table in front of him. He, like Behan, needs an audience.

He gets one in the form of Lianne (Samantha Pearl), a dancer with a torn ligament in her thigh, acting as Brendan’s handler: Behan has a book, The catacombs (lower case – a classy touch) to finish, an already spent advance and a nervous publisher to deal with.

Holed up in the Chelsea Hotel following the success of his stage play The Hostage, Behan was once the toast of Broadway and actively encouraged to play up the worst excesses of 'the Stage Irishman'. Lately, however, he has become a figure of fun, goaded by the press (here anonymous in matching trench-coats and acting as an antagonistic Greek chorus) and physically unable to write. His trembling hands no longer working, recording his memoirs, as mood and ability allow him, to a Dictaphone.

The other member of his support group is George Kleinsinger (Richard Orr), composer and long-time Chelsea resident. His attempts to get Behan to seek treatment for his alcoholism fall on deaf ears, and it is this dynamic between Behan’s genius for words and his inability to deal with his own demons that Behan (the playwright) exploits most effectively.

Brendan’s disgust with his own hand – a careless, foreign thing raising a glass of brandy to his lips – is powerfully affecting. And for all of the brittle one-liners, this is where the power of the play resides.

Brendan at the Chelsea is, however, littered with fabulous Behanisms – diamonds in the saw-dust. Smoking a Cuban cigar makes him feel 'both radical and bourgeois at the same time'. Critics are dismissed with contempt: 'They’re like eunuchs in the harem. They see the tricks every night but they are incapable of doing it.'

The centre of the play is, of course, the roaring boy Behan. At best an unreliable narrator, the action is filtered through drunken reverie, masturbatory fantasy, sober regret and paranoiac nightmare. Throughout he is haunted by two phantom women: Suzanne, his mistress with whom he’s recently had a son – 'My hands and feet are numb but no other extremities have been affected' – who exists as a sense of panic at the end of the phone.

And then there is his wife, Beatrice (Pauline Hutton), a waking dream throughout the earlier parts of the play, perversely showing us the closest thing to the truth: the exhilarating highs of being caught up in the orbit of a man who could be charming, romantic and breathlessly funny and violent, abusive and mawkishly self pitying, over the duration of a whisky bottle.

All of the cast acquit themselves well, but Dunbar as Behan is astonishing, alternating charm and scathing abuse and trading wit for boorishness, all underpinned by his failing energies and hopeless addiction. He is the dead centre of this play, inhabiting it all – the monster at the centre of the maze.

Brendan at the Chelsea runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until November 10.