Barbarians

Barrie Keeffe
Tooting Arts Club in association with The Soho Theatre
Central St Martins School of Art on Charing Cross Road

Jake Davies, Thomas Coombes and Josh Williams Credit: Cesare de Giglio
Jake Davies, and Josh Williams Credit: Cesare de Giglio
Tthomas Coombes, Jake Davies, Josh Williams Credit: Bronwen Sharp

There is something exciting happening at the top of the former Central St Martins School of Art on Charing Cross Road. Across various rooms, the Tooting Arts Club in association with The Soho Theatre is mounting a powerful production of Barrie Keeffe’s 1977 trilogy of plays Barbarians. Except they look as if they could just have been written.

With youth unemployment currently running at half a million and roughly one in three young people in Lewisham being out of work this series of plays about three Lewisham lads desperate for work and some kind of purpose in life seems incredibly topical.

The subject of the trilogy is bleak but the dialogue lifts the play with its warmth and humour. Bill Buckhurst’s imaginative staging aided by Simon Kenny’s very effective design constantly makes the audience feel part of the action.

The plays take place over a series of rooms. The first Killing Time is performed among the crowded seating of the cafe bar. The closeness of the seats to each other emphasises the remarkable energy, and swift fluid movement of the three actors as they clamber onto tables or move between the chairs, turning everything into their performing area. It reminds us that their lives are hemmed in by a world that offers them little. There is a particular confident physicality to the acting of Thomas Coombes as the older white character Paul.

The three lads are trying to spot an expensive car for Paul’s cousin to steal. This they do with Paul encouraging the black youth Louis to pickpocket the car keys, only then to find out that the cousin is no longer interested.

The theme of a troubled background runs through the trilogy. The white youth Jan (Jake Davis) had spent time in a children’s home and in an extremely moving speech later tells us about the shocking circumstances in which his mother died. He and Louis (Josh Williams) had become friends with Paul while working in a harsh factory where both were sexually assaulted.

The second play Abide with Me begins with the audiance briefly penned behind the metal barriers of the kind you find holding back queues to football grounds on a match day. Released from our pens we filed into a terraced bench area to watch the characters waiting by a mock up of the outside wall to Wembley stadium. It’s a wall they kick with frustration as they wait for Jan’s Uncle Harold to bring promised tickets for the 1976 cup final of Manchester United. But Harold lets them down having given the tickets away as part of some business deal, echoing those bigger business deals that have turned Premier League football into a business that seems to care little for its fans.

Paul bitterly recalls their long support for the team, of the tedious journeys standing on packed trains, being herded like animals by police and then standing in wet clothes somewhere on the terraces where on occasions he couldn’t even see the goals being scored. It is then particularly upsetting to be locked out of the game while tickets are handed out to rich executives and celebrities who hardly care about the game.

The third play In the City ushers us into the arena seating of old sofas, ill matching chairs, and shopping trolleys that carry broken TVs. It is the day of the Notting Hill Carnival and some time after the events in the earlier plays.

Jan having joined the army is on the eve of his deployment to Northern Ireland and terrified about the prospect. Paul has marched with the far right, worked for a time with Securicor and is out of work again. As they wait for a date with two girls who never turn up they accidentally meet with the employed confident Louis. This becomes the flashpoint for frustrations and racism.

Barbarians is a deeply disturbing trilogy, all the more so because it has the ring of truth about it. And in case we should console ourselves that things are now better, we should bear in mind a few things. Those youth lucky enough to go for instance to the new Central St Martins at Kings Cross will be paying £9000 a year fees. They will perhaps be aware of the stories of graduates stacking shelves in supermarkets. Should they instead be claiming benefits, they will have to live off £57.90 a week from which they are unlikely to consider paying £53 a ticket to a Manchester United game. The problem and its implied solution are scrawled in huge letters across a wall of the venue: “Do not adjust your mind – reality is at fault.” 

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna