Paul Anderson, review of Boots for the Footless by Brian Behan (Tricycle, Kilburn), Tribune, 26 January 1990
“Tricycle’s play ‘outrages’ audience,” screamed the lead headline in last Friday’s Kilburn Times. The story underneath was less spectacular. “Four members of the audience of Brian Behan’s new play, Boots for the Footless, have written to the leader of Brent Council, Dorman Long, and to the local MP, Ken Livingstone, to demand that the production’s funding be withdrawn,” it read. “Cannel Keeley, of Glastonbury Street, West Hampstead, described the performance as “two hours of psychological torture”.
“Every single stereotype about stupid, drunken, violent Irishmen and sexually contradictory, irrational Irishwomen was dragged out and celebrated . . “
Ms Keeley is, of course, entitled to her opinion, but it is difficult to feel anything but pity for anyone quite so humourless. Boots for the Footless is certainly bawdy, hilariously irreverent and satirical — particularly about Irish Catholicism and republicanism — but racist it is not.
It is a two-act farce, some might say autobiographical, the first part set in a Dublin bedroom in 1950. The central character is Padser, a chronically lazy skiver who is living in bed at his brother’s house, tolerated because he has £5,000 of inheritance money (under the mattress). Padser’s brother, Declan, is a drunk; his nephews, Martin and Lar, are workshy political agitators (Martin republican, Lar communist); the sister-in-law, Maura, is undisputed boss of the household.
To cut a long, complex and immensely funny story short, we reach the interval with only Maize and Declan left in the house. Padser has done a runner with his money to escape the clutches of Bridie, a country girl to whom he has been forced to promise marriage; Martin has been arrested for shooting a policeman; and Lar has decided that there’s more chance of making the revolution in England.
Act two takes us to the Festival of Britain building site in London the following year, where Padser has taken a job after gambling away his fortune. He gets his nephews jobs too (Martin has escaped from Mountjoy prison), and Lar soon becomes shop steward.
Lar attempts to organise the workers to prevent the King and Queen from visiting the site wthout union cards; Martin announces his plan to assassinate them.
Although the pace flags at the very end, this is a tremendously enjoyable anarchic comedy. It’s also superbly written: Behan has an unerring ear for vernacular Irish speech. If this is “psychological torture”; give me some more.