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  • Chris O'Rourke

Mother of All the Behans

Imelda May in Mother of All the Behans. Image by Ros Kavanagh


Imelda May is a mother of re-invention. Once rockabilly good girl, now sultry chanteuse in a backless dress. A voice like hot coals, her eyes burn like torch songs beneath a raven black fringe, even as her open smile remains invitingly Dublin. Singer, songwriter, May recently added poet to her resume, as well as actress with the 2022 movie Fisherman’s Friend: One and All. Now, with Peter Sheridan’s 1987 play Mother of All the Behans (based on Brian Behan’s book of the same name), May takes on theatre, ensuring her many fans will have a field day. As will the cynics. Verdant Productions latest revival open to accusations of focusing on the quantity of bums on seats rather than artistic quality. Of pandering to an easy nostalgia with songs and stories from the nursing home performed by an untrained actress. Adopting a formula (becoming prevalent) of taking something tried and tested, ensuring overheads are low in terms of cast and touring, and rounding it off with a big name to headline. Is that good for theatre, many ask? In the current climate does it really matter when you’re lucky to get people into a theatre at all? Whatever your view, you still have to deliver a quality evening on whatever terms you set for out yourself. Mother of All the Behans’s terms being history mixed with nostalgia served up as old fashioned, variety show entertainment. For which there is clearly an audience. Who Mother of All the Behans serve superbly well. Thanks, primarily, to a captivating May.

May shares much with long time, Crumlin resident Kathleen Behan, the mother of Brendan, Dominic and Brian Behan. For Dublin’s best known Liberties Belle was also raised on songs and stories from when the singalong a singsong was still popular. Singing being something Kathleen also loved, ever ready to carry a tune at the drop of a hat. Likeable, strong minded, self-willed, both women exude an infectious effervescence making you eager to enjoy their company. May’s warm, assured personality a natural fit, helped by Sheridan’s sensitive and supportive direction. Sheridan well attuned to the resonances and rhythms of Dubliners, reflected throughout his body of work. Naturally, he’s a Northsider. As was the Lady Behan, from Russell Street originally, and her most famous son Brendan. As, indeed, are all the best Dubliners (that I was born in the Rotunda and christened in St. Laurence O’Toole’s has no bearing on the last remark).

Imelda May in Mother of All the Behans. Image by Ros Kavanagh

It defeats the storyteller’s purpose to tell you Kathleen’s story given that Sheridan and May tell it so much better. Suffice to say it serves up a highlight reel rather than an academic treatise of life in Dublin during the first half of the twentieth century. Viewed from the perspective of a remarkable Fenian woman and her political and artistic family. Disclosing fascinating insights into the man himself, Brendan Behan. If the script makes clunky jumps at times and rushes towards the finish line a little too quickly, mostly it coheres well around the conceit of a woman in a nursing home relaying the details of her life. Kathleen’s oral history never offering definitive answers so much as conveying a sense of time and place. Of attitudes and feelings surrounding the events in question. Such as life in the tenements followed by having to move out to the fringes of the city. The strains and legacy of the Irish Civil War. A woman’s struggle in a male dominated world of two husbands and seven children. Snapshots evoking curiosity of a time, place and family rather than detailed answers, persuading you to seek those for yourself.

Throughout, Sheridan wrestles with the subtextual tensions of a tale written in the eighties about the first fifty years of the twentieth century performed as we close out the first quarter of the twenty-first century yielding a technical mixed bag. Sean Gilligan’s live, heavy handed piano might offer accompaniment, but it often sounds like the intrusive pianist in a hotel breakfast bar. Even as it ushers forth a sense of songs sung around the piano. Lou Dunne’s set might be a masterclass in economy, but it never looks more than a dull bedroom in a nursing home despite May’s best efforts to suggest a wider world. Barry McKinney’s lights, working overtime to add emotional depth, draw too much attention to themselves when neither Kathleen nor May needed the help. Indeed, May proves to be an impressive raconteur, following in the footsteps of Rosaleen Linehan who originaly played the role. True, she fumbles a line occasionally and loses phrases to rushed diction, but she knows Kathleen. Knows working class Dubliners. Knows how to channel the music loving, gossip girl who claims she's never one to talk or say a bad word about anyone then does nothing else. Giving Kathleen youth, life and vivid expression when she sings, the transformation visible.

Imelda May in Mother of All the Behans. Image by Ros Kavanagh

As May rounds out the night with Molly Malone, it will confirm, for some, that this was all just panto for pensioners. A musical tour down memory lane for old fogeys. Hinting at a loaded prejudice that seems to suggest theatre is only about art and only for the young. Yet listen closely. The ghosts of old Dublin revealed, not in its most famous fishmonger, but in the audience. Quietly, tensely, working up to giving themselves permission as the old, singsong protocols come into play. May’s call from Everywhere We Go immediately met with a response. A haunting Molly Malone verse met with reverent silence until the chorus when all join in, unasked, to sing communally. The walls of the Olympia recognising a time half forgotten brought vividly back to life. Yes, Mother of All the Behans trades in smaltzy, commonplace nostalgia, but it’s all rather magical. Taking your breath away a little. This brief, ghostly transport through time, shared through song. Serving up a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman, and the family and city she loved.

Mother of All the Behans, based on the book by Brian Behan, adapted and directed by Peter Sheridan, with additional material by Rosaleen Lineman, presented by Verdant Productions in association with 3Olympia, runs at 3Olympia until August 26.

For more information visit Verdant Productions or 3Olympia.


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