Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Review Barbarians

by Barrie Keeffe

Lonely Hearts

TLT and her Made-In-Britain hatchback chugged along to a Tooting Arts' Club  site-specific performance of Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians, a trio of 1977 plays, the evening the death of  1970s' former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey was  anounced.

At face value this dynamic production is about three school leavers from Lewisham in South London scrapping against rejection and unemployment at the time Healey was in government, using a subtext of topics ripped from the headlines. 

But the pieces also harness the energy and satiric techniques of centuries-old city comedies which segue seamlessly into the era of cold-war punk, bovver boys and Britain's post industrial landscape and politics.

Director Bill Buckhurst, reviving his production of 2012 with a talented cast of three, cleverly stages the production, designed by Simon Kenny, in adjoining rooms on the third floor (only accessible by stairs) of the old Central St Martins' Art School, soon to be converted into flats. The grunge setting belies precise lighting (Rob Youngson) and sound including cutting-edge music of the disaffected 70s (Josh Richardson).

The audience sits at desks in a graffiti-daubed classroom for the first  piece, Killing Time, where the three  teenagers meet up. Jan (Jake Davies) fresh from the Job Centre (the name incidentally, freshly rebranded from employment exchange in the 1970s) , Paul (Thomas Coombes) with criminal and extreme right-wing connections and Afro-Caribbean Louis (Josh Williams) by necessity more intelligent and seeking to improve himself but equally directionless. 

The audience, escorted by the cast as Mr Punch-type policemen through a railed area for the second (and earliest written) play of the trilogy, Abide With Me, then plant themselves on football terrace-style seats. 

The three lads are outside Wembley Stadium on the day of the FA Cup Final. 

Desperate for tickets, they have pushed their way through the touts to the ground's periphery but find it impossible to have a butcher's at the match over the corrugated fence. 

Tribal Manchester United football fans, albeit with a more globalized outlook after travelling with their teams, they are still in the hands of others as they await Jan's dodgy "Uncle Harold" who has promised to get them in.

The riotous stock rises, culminating in the dark, smokey reversals and uncomfortable titanic violence (fight director Bret Yount) of third piece In The City. 

Set during summer Carnival in Notting Hill, Paul claims to have set up dates through a Lonely Hearts' column as army recruit Jan prepares to embark for Belfast. Nevertheless, unresolved ugly tensions splinter to the surface when they accidentally meet upwardly mobile Louis.

Part of the plays' disturbing beauty is the tender but brutal relationship between the three characters veering between visceral neediness, broad satire and high-octane physicality. 

Jake Davies brings a delicate susceptibility to the role of Jan, the most dependent of the three. A veteran of the 2012 production, Thomas Combes menaces as Paul, damaged yet always willing to inflict damage. Meanwhile Josh Williams remains touchingly aspirational but vulnerable, even when taking on more easily the clothes and technology of the coming Thatcherite era.

Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians, written in the age of football hooliganism headlines, the exploitative New English Library, and plays banned from TV, still has ample resonance for audiences in the twenty first century.

Lusty, angry comedy, subtle literary, historical and social subtext combine in a gritty yet lyrical production with finely modulated performances. An unadulterated green light from Traffic Light Theatregoer.

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