Central St Martins School of Art, London – until 7th November 2015
It has long been recognised that when writing about his world, Barrie Keefe’s finger is firmly on society’s pulse. With Barbarians however Keefe goes one step further, not just finding that pulse, but slicing it open in front of us, confronting his audience with those bloody, ugly realities that, skin-deep, continually surround us.
A 1970s trilogy of short plays, Barbarians follows three disaffected young men from their confused and sometimes angry adolescence into adulthood. Keefe’s deployment of irony is always a treat and the evening’s opening play, Killing Time is peppered with his trademark black humour as the teenagers, not long out of school, contemplate an evening of petty crime.
Abide With Me sees the audience shepherded into holding pens to watch the three lads, all fans of Manchester United, spend the 1976 Cup Final ticketless outside Wembley Stadium and brimming with futile hopes to get in to see the game. Anger and frustrations bubble, as amidst the trio’s evolving dynamics, Keefe also exposes on football’s vicariously exploitative place in modern England. For young men with little else to believe in, their team offers a cause and a flag to rally behind. In later years a devotion often further exploited by the right wing National Front.
Barbarians ends with In The City, set against a backdrop of the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are grown up now, yet still Keefe’s scalpel mercilessly exposes further layers of pain and frustration.
Youth unemployment was (and is) rife when Keefe wrote the scripts and his prose remains a masterful and perceptive analysis of angst and inadequacy. Those of us who knew the era will relish the nods to Dickie Davis and adverts for Denim after shave, as well as recalling the days when a “tranny” meant a portable radio and a Rover 3500 signified some modest status. Alternatively, Barbarian’s younger audiences may perhaps consider a comparison with Green Day’s American Idiot, a show that speaks to and of an American wasted generation, as they observe Keefe’s characters walking their own boulevards of broken dreams.
Throughout, the three actors compel, no mean feat for a show that’s nigh on three hours. Thomas Coombes plays Paul the wannabe alpha-male. He’s all mouth (or boot, or knife as circumstances dictate) and menace. Coombes explores his character’s machismo with an impressively thuggish sensitivity. Railing against a world that is passing him by, bestowing him no favours, his ignorant hatred darkens with each chapter.
Josh Williams is Louis, the black kid. In Killing Time he’s the one of the trio that’s gone and got himself a skill as a refrigeration engineer, as he displays commitment later to the army cadets and ultimately in landing himself a decent job, we see Keefe’s caustic vision expose the decay of friendships that were once strong, into an envious and racially fuelled contempt.
Completing the trio is Jake Davies’ Jan. The least impacting of the three in the first two plays though his subtly played reactions to his friends is critical, Jan dominates In The City. Now a newly passed-out squaddie who’s fearfully contemplating a posting to Belfast, his terror and frustrations surge into a revelation that is as agonising as it is horrific.
Staging Barbarians in the starkly furnished former Central St Martins School of Art lends the tales an aura of frustrated bleakness. That 40 years ago the venue hosted the first Sex Pistols gig and thus became the birthplace of punk only adds to the evening’s zeitgeist. The site itself is a challenge. Three floors up, no lift and with a requirement to walk (or be herded) between the space’s auditoria, it’s a deliberately uncomfortable experience. Credit to Rob Youngson’s lighting and Josh Richardson’s sound design, both of which classily complement the location’s complexities.
Reprising Tooting Arts Club’s 2012 revival (although of that cast only Coombes remains), Bill Buckhurst – who recently directed the TAC’s acclaimed pop-up Sweeney Todd – returns to the helm. Amidst spellbinding soliloquy and monologue, Buckhurst demonstrates a profound understanding of Keefe’s language and nuance, delivering a scorching, brilliant drama.
Runs until 7th November