Thursday, 3 December 2015

Theatre review: Barbarians (Young Vic)

It can't be the best sign of the state of the nation that Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians is being seen as highly relevant in 2015. There was a highly acclaimed Tooting Arts Club production only a couple of months ago that I didn't go to see, because I'd already booked for this one at the Young Vic's Clare: It's the JMK Award production, which I always try to catch if possible, and this year's winner Liz Stevenson surrounds the audience with the 1970s world of Keeffe's three angry young men. A trilogy of one-act plays, Barbarians opens with Killing Time, in which three skinheads have been unemployed for a year since leaving school, and have just seen their former careers advisor coming out of the dole office too. It's a grim setting but we're in a for a lot of dark humour as the trio make a bit of cash a different way: Paul's (Brian Vernel) cousin steals cars to order, and will pay the boys to call him with tips on where he can find the model he's looking for.

The suggestion that Jan (Alex Austin) take a job in a factory is dismissed as women's work in the first play, but when we rejoin them for Abide With Me a couple of years later, all three are working there, Louis (Fisayo Akinade) even grudgingly accepting the fact that a female colleague regularly gropes him.

Led by Paul, they've found an outlet for their frustration in football. Rabid Manchester United fans, they've followed the team loyally all season, but in a reflection of how they feel left behind by the world in general, now their team's made the FA Cup Final they haven't been able to get tickets. The story of their attempts to get in to see the match remains broadly comic, but there's an ever-more creeping despair underneath it.

I saw a rehearsed reading of Abide With Me a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, so I'd been looking forward to a full staging of the whole sequence. Stevenson's production doesn't disappoint, Fly Davis' set design making use of the small MDF-lined space to create a brutalist traverse with wooden walls either side that the characters literally and metaphorically kick against, and steps in the middle of the seating to give the cast opportunities to get uncomfortably close to the audience.

And the cast are all impressive, throwing a lot of energy (and each other - the fights by Kev McCurdy are some of the most brutal I've seen for a while, and explain why Vernel's arms are covered in bruises) into a fast and furious show. Although all three give strong performances, it's inevitably Vernel who stands out as the central figure of Paul. By the climactic play In The City, Jan and Louis have found some sense of purpose, even if in the former's case it's a purpose that terrifies him. But Paul has become more disconnected than ever, turning to the National Front and, after years of having a black friend and barely thinking anything of it, turning on Louis as the target for his anger.

The play remains powerful and sadly relevant, and however dark a turn Paul takes, Stevenson and Vernel don't allow you to entirely lose sympathy with the character and how he ended up like that. Stevenson underpins both earthy comedy and violent despair with a kind of lyricism, and both director and cast will be names I'll look forward to seeing more from.

Barbarians by Barrie Keeffe is booking until the 19th of December at the Young Vic's Clare (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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