THEATRE / Playing patriot games: Paul Taylor on Bogdanov's production of The Hostage

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Just as the IRA is claiming to have renounced violence, up pop Michael Bogdanov and the RSC with a revival of Brendan Behan's The Hostage, a likeably chaotic entertainment that whisks us back to the IRA of the late Fifties. This was before the organisation's provisional wing was formed and a time when, to an old Irish patriot like the play's Pat, the IRA was 'as dead as the Charleston', rendered archaic by the H-bomb.

On the other hand, the main representative of the movement in the piece is clearly no 'laughing boy' but a thin-lipped (if incompetent) fanatic, played here by Eoin McCarthy as prissy-accented, self- deceiving Puritanism in a beret and gaberdine. He's like some comically distorted sneak preview of what lay in the future.

A sprawling mix of music hall, political pantomime and improvised gags, the piece is set in a brothel-cum-boarding house, splendidly evoked here in Kendra Ullyart's design with its skew- whiff, drunk's-eye-view of a Dublin tenement. The owner is 'Monsewer', a Baden-Powell blimp who wanders round spouting Gaelic with a plummy English accent and performing musical atrocities on Irish bagpipes.

John Woodvine's hilarious performance conveys how this crank lives in an unperturbably self-deceived, romantic world of his own in which the inmates, the whores, gay-transvestites, muscle-queens and whited sepulchres are actually members of a republican army under his command. But then the real IRA decides it wants to use the brothel as a safe house for stowing the hostage, a nave 18-year-old cockney National Service youth, who it has taken in reprisal for the threatened hanging of an IRA gunman of the same age.

The spirit of the piece is boozily Falstaffian, and anti-heroic in the way it keeps tugging the rug out from under nationalist and religious posturings. There's a wonderful moment when Dearbhla Molloy's colourfully raffish prostitute, Meg, sings a rousing, lump- in-the-throat ballad about the Easter Rising, only to be promptly yanked back to earth with a bump by the news that there are a couple of farmers waiting for her services in a taxi outside with the meter running. 'If I'm a whore itself, sure I'm a true patriot,' opines Meg, while another character claims that the worst thing about imprisonment was the other Irish patriots he was locked up with.

Ideologies of various kinds get their dignity dented in this celebration of wanton misrule, and complacencies are continually jolted, as when the good-humoured, apolitical hostage (Damien Lyne) nonetheless ends a song about love of his homeland on a revealing note of unthinkingly heartless racism.

Dermot Crowley is marvellous as Pat, the superannuated 1916 veteran whose presence and deflating, side-of-the-mouth comments hold together a production which, though spirited, can't quite stop the ramshackle material from sagging at points, particularly in the second half. This is no fault of Lyne's orphan-boy hostage or Alison McKenna as the Irish fellow- orphan who befriends him. Sentimental but not soppily so, they give the production a genuinely touching emotional thread.

'The Hostage', the Barbican Theatre. (Box-office: 071-638 8891)