The Hostage, Southwark Playhouse, London

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The Independent Culture

England has, in the theatre, been symbolised as a decrepit theatre or a slipshod hospital. Some might feel Ireland should be represented as a church, but Brendan Behan knew better. In The Hostage, Ireland is a Dublin pub with rooms upstairs. These are rented by three whores (two of them female) and a dodgy lodger who brings in a hymn-singing salvationist. The proprietor, Patrick, has lost a leg in an IRA battle at Cork--or was it Mullingar? Given the alcoholic intake here, it is not surprising that he isn't sure; one suspects he has become legless without leaving the pub.

It is 1958, and Patrick and the IRA are still connected. The British will be hanging a Republican the next morning, and, to stop them, the Irish terrorists are going to take an English soldier hostage. When the man in the leather trenchcoat arrives, Patrick is exasperated to learn that he doesn't have an actual hostage yet: "What're you going to do – buy one in Woolworth's?" But the soldier – like the condemned IRA man, a teenager – soon turns up, and there begins the long night of song and story and romance and violence, four words that also encapsulate Ireland.

There is much to enjoy in Adam Penford's production, which has several stirring performances. Looking as though he has just woken up with a start, Gary Lilburn's Pat presides over his wayward flock in an amiable manner, but there are hints of threat in the way he sometimes uses his cane as a rod or a rifle. Jonathan Battersby, as an Englishman in Ireland who has gone native with a vengeance, is electrified with the intensity of the mad and driven, and Rhiannon Oliver's batty soul-saver gushes vigorously, and gives a clarion rendition of "Don't Muck About With the Moon," Behan's plea to Khrushchev when he sent up Sputnik. The young and very pretty Emily Dobbs, founder of Jagged Fence Productions, which is presenting the play, is sweet but not sugary as the chambermaid, and her high-stepping dance of fantasy happiness with the young soldier is a moment of painful delight.

But, the whole of the play is less than the sum of its well-played parts. The prostitutes are too fresh-faced and unused-looking, and the nightmarish-yet-cosy atmosphere is missing, the saggy, baggy, boozy feeling of people who, with nowhere to fall, are lying in the gutter and rejoicing.

To 20 February (020 7407 0234)