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FringeReview Ireland 2023

Mother of All The Behans

Verdant Productions in association with 3Olympia

Venue: 3Olympia, Dublin


Low Down

First performed in 1987, Peter Sheridan’s adaptation of Brian Behan’s  book about his mother Kathleen provides Irish star Imelda May with the perfect theatrical debut in an elegantly staged, musically rich production.

With additional material by Rosaleen Linehan.

Musical Director Sean Gilligan; Set & Costume Design Lou Dunne; Lighting Design Barry McKinney; Sound Design Terry Heron.





The dramatisation of Kathleen Behan’s extraordinary life story could easily slip into melodrama; you could see it as eight part series on a streaming channel, shot in sepia, with gun-runners in cloth caps perhaps. The childhood slide from middle class Dublin to poverty, sent to an orphanage for six years, fiercely Republican, twice married, Kathleen loved to sing and tell stories including, in later life, on TV and in the autobiography that son Brian transcribed.

Peter Sheridan’s obligingly compact version brings three bold matriarchs vividly to life in a classy and calibrated performance by erstwhile rockabilly, now poet, singer and film actor Imelda May. There are the two grannies, one a grasping landlady in a condemned tenement, the other a revolutionary bomb-planter, and Kathleen, steeped in Irish culture and political to the core. These are not especially ‘likeable’ characters, they are fierce, independent, and driven to be at the centre of things, despite having a brood of children to take care of – Kathleen herself had seven.

With its largely linear narrative Peter Sheridan’s play isn’t entirely free of signifying tropes (the set comprises a bed, window and screen) but it dances through the biographical details in lively prose peppered Kathleen’s native wit. ” ‘I’m Lady Behan’ in Russell Street, and ‘the old Fenian’ in Crumlin.” Covering an extraordinary rich and well documented period of Irish history we see from Kathleen’s perspective how the fight for independence affected the lives of those around her; her husband’s drinking, Brendan Behan’s notoriety, fame and early death.

If May’s performance feels overly studied at the start, it loosens as the year’s fall away, becoming spare of gesture and heartfelt in the telling with  a convincing Northside accent. It’s no surprise that in the songs May finds her own and Kathleen’s true voice. Brian once said that his mother “had a voice that could rouse the dead” (and there’s a record to prove it) but the mostly elderly audience at the Olympia were visibly moved on  hearing The Red Flag, The Auld Triangle and that older chestnut Molly Malone sung so magnificently well. Accompanied on piano by Sean Gilligan the songs bring Kathleen to life, whether singing ‘Mrs Hooligan’s Christmas Cake’ to her little sisters in the orphanage, or Brendan’s ‘The Laughing Boy,’ Kathleen’s term for her friend Michael Collins.

On the big stage Olympia stage, with Barry McKinney’s somewhat over emphatic lighting, with sing-a-longs and an instant standing ovation, the play has transformed from Rosaleen Linehan’s more grounded, intimate original version into a glossy star vehicle. But any detractors (or Begrudgers as Brian would have it) would have to be stoney hearted not to be moved by May’s evocative story telling and powerhouse voice.