Barnes’ People – Original Theatre

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Directors: Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters

Writer: Peter Barnes

A recent revival of playwright Peter Barnes celebrates his wayward genius. His plays reveal an unconventional stylist (his baroque comedy The Ruling Class, starring James McAvoy, wowed audiences in 2015), but also someone whose themes of class, privilege and politics are more prescient than ever.

Filmed at the Theatre Royal Windsor in 2021, Barnes’ People is a collection of monologues. As the characters arrange themselves before the camera, the green screen behind them flickers: the facade of a cosy living room, an office, a park bench. They are deliberately sketched: a floating idea of scene and place. What matters is the character sitting in front of us.

The monologues range from the esoteric to the fiercely political. In A True Born Englishman, Adrian Scarborough plays a former Royal employee, discussing his experiences at Buckingham Palace. With Leslie Bray (First Footman), Barnes’ bracing one-liners keep us on our toes. Bray revels in the prestige of the job, despite poor wages and dubious perks. His inflated self-importance is beautifully portrayed by Scarborough who treads the line between knee-scraping servility and snobbery. The monologue underlines the fragility of tradition: “Change one thing and everything changes”.

While some of Barnes’ monologues speak of a particular moment, others feel uncomfortably close. Rosa, starring Jemma Redgrave, was first broadcast on BBC Radio in 1981 and focuses on a doctor assessing geriatric patients.

Rosa sits at a desk, reading case histories. It’s a litany of neglect and poverty. Elderly people, no longer able to live independently, are recommended for nursing home care. Redgrave is visibly moved as she reads. These residents will be put into homes barely fit for purpose. Rosa oversees 600 patients, sinking under a mountain of paperwork. Policy supersedes compassion. Barnes’ fury is not aimed at Rosa but at the system itself. From Thatcherite cost-cutting to the impact of Brexit, politically, care is always a problem deferred.

It is this sour note that informs Barnes’ last monologue – Losing Myself. Adams, a former doctor (Matthew Kelly), sits alone in a cemetery. Forgotten and uncared for, this is not Highgate with its fashionable dead. Adams chats to one of the headstones: Maurice (1882-1950). Kelly’s lost, drifting soul muses on mortality. He remarks how the poor rented burial plots, only to be thrown into “bone pits” later. He remembers his glittering medical career: now he is as “poor as a winter crow”. He has lost everything, including his own identity. In Adams’ philosophising, Barnes’ line, “chaos holds the reins”, gives the monologue a Beckettian flavour.

There is a voice so contemporary here, many of these plays could have been written yesterday. Barnes’ anger still produces heat: he rages at wasted lives, the games politicians play, and the buffer that wealth and privilege offers the select few. His writing exposes the faultlines in our society, and how little has changed.

A nihilist sensibility alongside a quick-witted humour. They seem an unlikely pairing, but under Barnes’ handling, they spark meaningful commentary. In Barnes’ People, this unique style, once again, finds its moment.

Available here to rent

The Reviews Hub Score

Still a contemporary voice

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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