Sometimes it is really difficult to know what to write about a production I have seen. This may be because it is an old favourite that has been reviewed to death or it may that it was so awful that there is just no way to accentuate the positive – believe me that does happen – or, as in the case of Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians playing at the old Central St Martins School of Art, it is just so hard to write about because it had quite a profound effect on me as an audience member. Still let’s give it a go.
Barbarians is an unusual show as it is made up of three individual one act plays which jump into the lives of three young South East London lads as they go through their travels from school-leavers to adults.
The first play – Killing Time – is set in 1977 when the UK was celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Pomp and pageantry were everywhere. There were street parties and everyone having a good old time. Well, not if you were one of the 40,000 people leaving school that year with no prospects ahead of you apart from signing on to the dole on Monday. Three Lewisham lads know all about this. They have been unemployed for over 12 months now and are really not feeling the whole Jubilee vibe. There is Jan (Jake Davies) young and immature in many ways who – to the scorn of his friends – is considering working in a factory full of women in order to do something. Then there is Louis (Josh Williams) who could possibly be described as not the brightest tool in the box, although he has spent a year on a government training course learning how to be an expert on refrigeration. And finally, there is Paul (Thomas Coombes) the leader of this group who would prefer to be impressing his cousin by spotting cars to steal rather than finding a real job. On this particular night, the lads are looking for a Rover 3500, preferably left hand drive, although, as Jan points out there aren’t too many of them around Lewisham. But, Paul wants them to search for one so search they will. Their night takes them from a nightclub to the local ‘lovers lane’ and finally to the Town Hall in their quest to keep Paul’s cousin happy.
Following a short commercial break – and I was amazed that I could still remember the tag line to the old Denim aftershave advert – World of Sport started and we were treated to the build-up of the FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Southampton. As we were moved from our original seats out to the front of Wembley, the boys appeared once more to start the second play – Abide With Me. Our three heroes are slightly older now, they all work in a factory in town and are all dedicated Manchester United fans. After a season running around the country following the team, the boys are finally here, at Wembley for the final which will be the cherry on top of the Man U season. There is only one minor fly in the ointment as far as the boys are concerned, they don’t actually have a ticket for the game. As time moves on and kick-off gets nearer, the boys, particularly Paul, get more agitated and excited about seeing their heroes on the sacred Wembley turf. But, are the other two as committed as Paul? Louis has more in his life than football. He wants to join the army and is working his way there by being a cadet – every Thursday regular as clockwork. After listening to Louis, Jan is tempted into the soldier’s life – where everyone is your family and you look after each other – and is seriously considering going along to cadets as well. This is a pivotal moment in all three boys’ lives and the repercussions of the decisions they make now will affect them all forever.
The final play – In The City – is the hardest to write about not only because I don’t want to give any spoilers away but because it is a profoundly moving, intense and emotional piece. It is the Notting Hill Carnival, about a year later than the previous play, and our three lads have changed completely – well that is to say, two of them have. Jan is now a fully trained soldier and tonight is his last night in London before he heads off to Northern Ireland. He is spending the evening at Carnival with Paul, who has arranged ‘dates’ for them both. Jan is apprehensive about going to Ireland but is determined to enjoy himself and he and Paul are both delighted to run into Louis who has really grown up. Smart dressed, working in a good job and with transport of his own, Louis is barely recognizable as the slightly dim, refrigeration obsessed youth of previously. And that’s as far as I am going to go with In The City. Anything beyond this point really would be a major league spoiler but I can promise you a mind blowing and intense final scene that may not be comfortable to experience but will leave you in no doubt about the future for Paul, Jan and Louis.
At just over two and half hours, Barbarians is a major piece of work and writer Barrie Keeffe doesn’t pull any punches in his portrayal of British youth during the late 1970s. The language is coarse and a large percentage of the comments made – particularly in the last play – make thoroughly uncomfortable hearing in this day and age. But for all that, this is a very human story of boys growing to men and trying to find their way in a very scary world. In a way, each of them is searching for acceptance and a sense of belonging to something – whether the army or the mindless violence of a football mob on the rampage – just as most people do. I really liked both jan and Louis as characters. Jan, the ever faithful follower, just trying to fit in and be there for everyone. Louis the brave, strong and determined boy not prepared to let society dictate who he is. Unfortunately, there was, for me, nothing whatsoever to like about Paul. A nasty piece of work ready to physically bully his ‘friends’ should they show signs of going against him or wanting to break free, Paul was someone who always convinced himself he was doing what he was doing to ‘help’ others when he was actually satisfying his own needs. I would have hated to run into in daylight let alone down a dark street and it is credit to the acting skills of Thomas Coombes that he managed to make my feelings about Paul so negative. Having said that, all three actors were amazing in their roles and I really did believe not only in each character but, more importantly in their relationship with each other.
The old building on Charing Cross Road was an excellent choice of venue with its flaking ceilings, no lift and scuzzy air of neglect adding so much to the production itself. Director Bill Buckhurst uses the building perfectly and particularly with In The City makes sure the audience are fully immersed in the action going on around them – most of which is incredibly realistic and rather unnerving to watch.
To sum up, as a slice of the UK in the 1970s Barbarians works very well. In all three plays there are moments of genuine humour, high emotion – I can’t have been the only one choking back a tear as Abide With Me was played – and true horror as we see the lives of these three boys unfold. Definitely not one for the faint-hearted Barbarians is nevertheless a superb, if disturbing, experience.
Review by Terry Eastham
In 1977, Britain had just emerged from a worldwide recession. It was the Queen’s silver jubilee year but Paul, Jan and Louis had little to celebrate. With widespread youth unemployment and little opportunity on the horizon, there was anarchy in the air. Barbarians follows the fluctuating fortunes of its three male characters on a journey that is as humorous as it is brutal, to the soundtrack of The Clash, the Sex Pistols and The Jam. This venue provides the perfect setting, steeped in the punk culture of that time, to revive this acclaimed production which is as relevant now as it was then.
“I’m delighted that Barbarians is going to the former St Martins building. It’s the perfect home for it. When I wrote Barbarians I was trying to capture that energy of punk on the stage, so to have it performed at such an important building from that time is very exciting. It sounds odd to say, but I’ve mixed feelings about seeing Barbarians revived. When I wrote it, I thought it was a play of its time, but in a way it’s sad that it’s still so relevant to the situation of young people today. Obviously I’m very happy to see it produced, but shocked that the problems in it are still around today.”– Barrie Keeffe.
“We knew the venue for this production had to be right, and we sought long and hard for the right location. The former St Martins embodies the creativity and imagination of the young people of that era and, as such, it provides a perfect playground for the uncontained, rebellious energy of the young men we meet in Barbarians.” – Rachel Edwards, producer.
by Barrie Keeffe
Paul: Thomas Coombes
Jan: Jake Davies
Louis: Josh Williams
Producer: Rachel Edwards (for Tooting Arts Club)
Co- Producer: Hilary Williams
Director: Bill Buckhurst
Designer: Simon Kenny
Sound Designer: Joshua Richardson
Lighting Designer:Rob Youngson
Casting: Marc Frankum
Venue: Former Central St Martins School of Art, 111 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H ODU
Dates: Tuesday 29th September – 7th November 2015
Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Saturday and Thursday matinees 3pm
Book via Soho Theatre
Phone 020 7478 0100
In person Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE