The Quare Fellow, Tricycle Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The term "gallows humour" is usually used figuratively, but not in the case of this Brendan Behan play.

The term "gallows humour" is usually used figuratively, but not in the case of this Brendan Behan play. Written in 1954, it is set a few years earlier, in Mountjoy Prison, when Ireland still had capital punishment. In the course of a day and a moonless night, the prisoners and warders joke, quarrel, and reminisce their way through the hours before a hanging. The unseen "quare fellow", who will swing in the morning, had killed his brother with an axe. No one knows why.

Mountjoy was Behan's own school of hard knocks, and the play shows his familiarity with such matters as the etiquette of death row (its prisoners, allowed to smoke, are expected to discard their fag ends where others can pick them up) and the technicalities of hanging (if the man is Catholic, the hood is slit so that he can be anointed). These Irish men, for whom women are only a distant memory, and who play pranks on each other, take any bet going, and tut about the wildness of the younger prisoners ("They'd be quiet kids if they got the larryin' we used to get"), seem little different from those beyond the walls. Indeed, some have an advantage over the ostensibly free: those who die at a fixed hour get a priest to smooth their passage to Heaven. "We can't advertise, 'Commit a murder and die a happy death'..." says Warder Regan. "We'd have the whole country at it."

Regan is a veteran of too many hangings, which have taught him not only philosophy but tact. Before he goes off, with another warder, to share the condemned man's last hours, he tells the young colleague, "Take off your watch". He also knows where to post the letters that are written at this time: in the grave. Why should wives and mothers, he says, be troubled with such "distressful rubbish". Neighbour, the oldest lag, has learned long ago what a bad bargain he made by agreeing to remove a hanged man's hood in return for two bottles of stout: "I wouldn't do it again for two bottles of malt."

The Quare Fellow demands what is an enormous cast for these straitened times - 17 here, even with some doubling. (The play is a co-production of the Oxford Stage Company and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.) They are all wonderful, and three of them are something more: Sean Campion's Regan, Tony Rohr's Neighbour, and Ciaran McIntyre's Dunlavin. The success of the evening is also a tribute to the director, Kathy Burke, though the opening scene, jaunty and brisk, does not ring true as a picture of men corroded by boredom and fear.

When the hour of the hanging strikes, a hellish chorus bursts forth - the last thing the dying man hears is the howling of hundreds of men, banging their tin cups on the bars. We are never told the quare fellow's name, but we know who this fratricide is. He is Ireland.

To 8 May (020-7328 1000)