It's a sign of the times that Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians rings very true despite being set in the early 1970s: the story of three disaffected kids and the sad trajectories their lives take doesn't seem as dated as one would hope, considering the sad outcome of the play. This excellently performed and produced revival couldn't be more timely.
Barbarians is a trilogy of short plays following Paul, Jan and Louis, but it could also be seen as three acts of a larger narrative. Each piece, as well as advancing the story, focuses on a particular theme, which coalesces into a rather searing look at growing up in Thatcher's Britain – and yet, the political upheaval is always alluded to in the light of how it affects the characters, humanising the dry facts into something far more personal and hard-hitting.
At the beginning, the three young men are struggling against unemployment, taking part in petty crime to pass the time, and we start to paint our own pictures of their lives:Paul, the angry punk, seems the most 'sorted', while Jan struggles with feelings of inadequacy after accepting a 'bint's job'. Louis seems far less worried, but that might just be down to him not being particularly bright. We then see all three trying to get into the 1976 FA Cup Final, and questions of social acceptance are brought to light when Louis suggests that Jan joins the army. But it is the final play, set during the Notting Hill carnival, that challenges the young men to appraise their views of race and conflict in the explosive finale.
The tone here is pretty oppressively bleak – these are clearly three young men whose lives are going nowhere, and their desperate struggles to find some sense of passion or belonging in a world that has left them feeling abandoned is not easy to watch. However, like recent televisual efforts in a similar vein (This Is England, for example), there is a wonderful humour and camaraderie to the piece. In this case, it is their deteriorating friendship that makes up the bulk of the drama, so the tone does get even grimmer as time goes on. It's not an easy watch.
That is not to say, however, that this isn't a stirring, powerful and exceptionally produced and performed piece. The writing is nothing short of brilliant - Barry Keeffe finds the voices of all three characters with ease, and their intertwined trajectories feel organic while building to a cleverly foreshadowed and powerful finale. All three performers do an excellent job with three difficult and complex characters, although it is Thomas Coombes' Paul that deserves the highest praise, bringing humanity to a character it would be too easy to hate.
Using the slightly ramshackle Broadway Studios to full effect, designer Olivia Altaras and director Bill Buckhearst have created a wonderful staging, making the audience part of the action: chairs are moved to create different performance spaces for each shorter play, while videos of old-fashioned advertisements are played on a period TV in the corner. These devices seemed to favour comedy over scene-setting, which did detract a little from the play's focus, but otherwise were a pleasantly charming way of breaking things up a bit.
These elements all came together beautifully - there really is very little to fault here. That being said, there is a conceptual problem with the play: it's just too long. Combine that with how depressing and difficult the subject matter is, by the end it's all a bit too much to take in. The actors were clearly flagging as well, although none of this detracted from a successful end result. This is one of the best things I've seen in a while and definitely worth heading to Tooting to see, but it's just all a bit much to take in.