Punks Paul, Jan and Louis are working class lads living in south London. School didn’t do much for them and unemployment is high, so they hang around and smoke, nick cars and try to pull girls. They’re bored, angry and frustrated at the lack of opportunities available to poor kids like them. They want to improve their quality of life and feel like they belong in society, but society’s too busy fighting terrorism and racism to pay them any attention so they do their best to get by, or not. It sounds like the present, right? Nope. Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians premiered in 1977. As London battles the National Front, striking unions and IRA bombs to a soundtrack of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, audiences can’t help but draw parallels between life then and now. It’s unsurprising this Tooting Arts Club/Soho Theatre production will soon be followed by the Young Vic’s, a completely different production of the same play, what with its contemporary social relevance and three fantastic roles for young actors to get stuck into. Though close to three hours long and composed of three self-contained plays at different points in the boys’ lives, the excellent performances, atmospheric venue and socio-political comment make the time well spent.
The long-vacant uni building on Tottenham Court Road used as the performance space for this production is the defining feature of this production, fostering intimacy, interaction and that overused catch-all word, “immersion”. The decaying interior surrounding the audience reinforces the poverty in the the lads’ and how grim it is for them day in and day out. We are in this world too, rather than just observing. Political slogans and graffiti cover the walls. The ceiling’s falling in above the youth club tables and chairs. Barriers herd spectators like cattle at a football match. Discarded furniture lines Notting Hill’s streets during carnival. The audience doesn’t sit on comfortable theatre seats, but on the items that make up the set. We aren’t comfortable, but nor should we be as neither are these guys. The three rooms that are used for the three separate plays contained in Barbarians are small and crowded with people; the actors’ energy rushes around the room, occasionally making contact with those of us watching but we never feel threatened despite the regularly erupting violence. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia created by this space, but also the possibility for the walls to be blown away by all rage. It’s a wonderful, angry whirlwind that encourages our inner “fuck the establishment” punk anarchists and empathy with the characters even though their actions are often abhorrent.
The cast is outstanding. Josh Williams is the aspirational black Louis; his skin colour is often unseen by his mates, and also makes him the victim of their racist “banter” and violence. Williams captures his inner strength and good intentions that eventually grow large enough to stand up for his beliefs. Whilst all of the characters want their lives to have a purpose, Louis doesn’t let leader Paul (Thomas Coombes) turn him into one of his violent minions as they grow up. Coombes’ terrifying Paul still manages to evoke sympathy when he is younger. His need to fit in always tends towards mob violence; the character reminds me of troubled young people from dysfunctional homes with little love around and no other knowledge of how to express frustration. Jake Davies is Jan, the shy mousy one who also tries to make something of himself but doesn’t have the inner strength that Louis does. Unsurprisingly, all three lads come to a horrible end when they meet again after going their separate ways, in the summer heat at Notting Hill Carnival.
Keeffe’s script is excellent and each of the playlets can stand alone and still make their point, but to present all three really drives the message home as the audience can see the effect of a poor quality of life on young people over a longer period of time. I would love to see a female equivalent of this play, as much of what’s contained in Barbarians is stereotypically male, and working class young women’s lives would have been no easier during the late 70s. Regardless, Tooting Arts Club’s production is worth seeing for its use of space and the effects it has on characterization and the energy of the piece. Director Bill Buckhurst’s work here is certainly to be commended in one of my theatrical highlights of this year.
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