Theatre Review: Borstal Boy


The homoeroticism inherent in Brendan Behan’s original novel may be whitewashed in the first Irish theatrical production of ‘Borstal Boy’ in 25 years, but that doesn’t hinder its power, says Rob Buchanan.


The production of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy opening this week at the Gaiety is the first in Ireland in 25 years. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the great man’s untimely death.

Adapted from Behan’s autobiographical novel of the same name, which charts his formative years as a rebel without a clue, from his ill-fated bombing campaign in Liverpool for the IRA, through the brutalities of his imprisonment before his final years in Hollesly Bay borstal.

I am a huge Behan aficionado, and I was eagerly looking forward to seeing my idol come to life on stage in a recognisable way.

Peter Coonan of Love/Hate fame plays young Brendan, the 16 year-old delusional idealist, while Gary Lydon, who we know from the movies, The Guard and Warhorse, plays the writer in his older years. While Coonan’s portrayal is spot on, Lydon steals the show with uncanny accuracy. With the voice, physical appearance and every mannerism so perfectly nailed, it’s less of an impersonation and closer to the actual presence of the auld blaggard himself, haunting the stage.

The production values are strong, with a totally engrossing, dynamic set and audiovisuals that are immersive without being heavy handed. The lighting with its huge rotating panels could have easily washed out and dwarfed the large ensemble cast, but the energy on stage kept the action firmly in focus.

For all its virtuosity, the second half of this production is slightly flabby. The homoeroticism inherent in the novel is almost whitewashed at times by the disproportionate emphasis on less important characters, and the lighthearted musical numbers. While that is unavoidable in sticking to Frank McMahon’s original adaptation, there’s not enough grit here to counteract the whimsy. This softening was enhanced by the surprisingly casual downplay on one crucial event in the story. I attended a preview, so maybe this will be sorted out in the show’s main run.

I`m not ashamed to admit I was quite teary eyed when during the encore the whole audience got to their feet to sing along to The Aul’ Triangle with the two ‘Behan’s’, young and older. To be part of this in The Gaiety, only a few steps away from several of Behan’s favourite watering holes was a special moment indeed. Go and see it and lose yourself in the company of one of Dublin’s finest queer sons.

Borstal Boy runs at The Gaiety until October 11, booking here.



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