Writer: Barrie Keeffe
Director: Liz Stevenson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
As a society, we are endlessly fascinated by the violent culture of young working class men, and every generation thinks it’s facing this problem anew. The solutions may change but the problems remain the same – a sense of powerlessness combined with poor prospects, limited education and feeling of being outside society. Barrie Keffee’s superb new play, set in 1970s Manchester and London, tells the story of three friends in a world of “geezers” and “bints”, dealing with all these issues but combines this with an examination of their individual agency in shaping the life they end up with.
Barbarians has three set-pieces, the first more of a scene-setter in which Paul, Jan and Louis tumble around the streets scouting for cars to steal for Paul’s cousin to sell on. Almost immediately it’s clear their world is one of unemployment, casual crime and domestic violence where even as they achieve success it turns to ashes in their mouths. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the scenes where the lads are stuck outside a big football match where every attempt to get a ticket fails and their frustration rises. More than a mere sporting event, Keffee’s writing turns this whole section into a brilliant metaphor for the working class condition, one of endless hope and ambition constantly disappointed, blocked by the stadium wall which they will never get past.
In his characters, Keffee has created three surprisingly likeable young men who you root for even when they behave appallingly. As the audience take their seats the boys walk around the room staring into people’s eyes confrontationally and you make instant assumptions about them. But as the play unfolds it becomes apparent that Louis (Fisayo Akinade) may be the baby of the group but he’s also the most grounded with his aspiration to use his refrigeration course that leads to a lot of fridge jokes that remain funny, while he dreams of being as cool as James Dean. Akinade gives him a soft heart and his growing determination is conveyed really well.
Alex Austin’s Jan is a little hazy in the first half, a follower who is not quite distinct enough from his idol Paul but afraid of what his future holds. But Austin comes really carves him out in the second part, as Jan longs to be part of some kind of family and makes a choice which leads to a much harder future than he imagined. But it is in Paul that Keffee has created the most interesting character, played here by Brian Vernel as a leader, a boy full of arrogance and certainty. He’s a fascinating creation, a ball of pent up frustration which grows as he sees his friends pulling away from him and making independent lives for themselves while he’s left behind in the same factory and the same old life. In Vernel’s multi-layered performance, this fear hardens into violent outbursts as life forces him down and eventually into more extreme behaviour as he loses control. But what makes this such an interesting production is that Paul is still somehow sympathetic because you can see the external forces driving his actions and the warmth that genuinely exists beneath the surface as he larks about with his friends or talks poetically about his love of football.
If there’s anything wrong with Barbarians it’s that it feels a bit long towards the end and it gets a little wayward just before the crunching finale. But Director Liz Stevenson has used her JMK Award extremely well, creating a production that is dynamic, bold and gripping while still retaining the central humanity of its characters. All that and a fabulous soundtrack to boot. “We won’t be ignored” says Paul but sadly it is all about fantasy as Louis tells the audience about the Notting Hill Carnival in the final section – and as Barbarians so starkly shows, fantasy is all these boys will ever have.
Runs until19 December 2015 | Image: EllieKurttz