Writer: Peter Barnes
Directors: Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters
Just when you think you have monologue fatigue, an absolute gem comes along and revivifies your enthusiasm for the format. Original Theatre’s Barnes’ People directed by Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters takes a quartet of seemingly disconnected stories written for radio and creates this beautiful and compelling anthology collection that looks at poverty, class and loneliness as four people reflect on and reconsider their lives, reminding us that the greatest theatre can be as simple as an actor and a writer in perfect harmony.
It begins with death as Matthew Kelly plays Adams in Losing Myself, a character deliberately detached from society, and addressing his thoughts to the grave of a stranger called Morris. With the graveyard about to be sold to property developers, Adams contemplates all that he has already lost equating the loss of his keys with that of faith and hope. A former doctor disillusioned with his own ability to feel compassion, Kelly’s performance is moving and tragic in its small way with Adams unjustifiably critical of himself. Yet, Barnes suggests a need for testimony even for those who shy away from life; Adams needs to be heard, even by the dead. This monologue is linguistically extraordinary, becoming a lament for a disappointed life.
Jemma Redgrave fronts the second monologue, a furious political piece about the failings of geriatric care that chimes with our pandemic experience. As the titular Rosa – a doctor reviewing applications for residential care – Redgrave delivers the opening sequence dispassionately, reading a series of lucid stories that speak of age, distress and family feuds while rubber-stamping their requests. Barnes’ writing is razor sharp, describing the East End as ‘dismembered… like living in a corpse’ as Rosa explores the failings of a care system that makes residents believe they don’t deserve better. Speaking to her dictaphone, like Adams, that same sense of a wasted life emerges as Rosa’s anxiety and alcoholism come to the fore, a one-time firebrand who has lost any sense of fight.
Social care and depression also feed through Barnes’ third piece Billy and Me that centres around a vaudevillian ventriloquist who turned the voices in his head into puppets for his act. In conversation with them one afternoon, Michael Jennings contemplates his career while his, often unsympathetic, dummies argue with him. Performed by Jon Culshaw, there are tones of The Entertainer in this tale of end of the pier decline as Jennings contemplates life as meaningless ‘blocks of wood’. The writing is a little clunky when Michael addresses his own breakdown and recognition of schizophrenia but Culshaw fills the fractured Jennings with empathy as he conducts this singular but multifaceted conversation.
One of theatre’s hardest working stars Adrian Scarborough plays a royal footman in Barnes’ slightly longer final piece A True Born Englishman in which he plays the supercilious Bray whose philosophy is most at odds with those who have come before. Knowing your place, accepting subservience and listening to your ‘betters’ has got Bray to the illustrious position of First Door Opener but beneath the dutiful and compliant exterior Scarborough notes a man whose father was a Vaudeville turn (like Michael) serving the Music Halls and Working Men’s Clubs while his proud rise to the top may have been at the expense of a friend. Bray may be, ‘the perfect servant’ as Helen Mirren’s Gosford Park character described herself, but Bray too is lonely and like the other speakers, not quite the man he thinks he is.
Filmed in the Theatre Royal Windsor Directors Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters navigate the line between stage and screen with precision, showing the actors preparing in the wings before the theatre magic begins – digitally enhanced with green screens transforming into set images, before the illusion drops once more at the end. Peters uses the camera to add a sinister overtone to the puppets’ dialogue in Billy and Me while Franks employs a variety of shots around the actor that capture the dazzling lights of the stage and the view into the auditorium but mixed with tight, unforgiving close-ups where his characters cannot hide from their pain.
Instantly immersive, the four monologues in Barnes’ People have the rare ability to create a whole world, a single life and flawed, troubled but sympathetic person in just 25 minutes. Each of the actors relishes Barnes’ rich storytelling while creating a compelling visual experience that expands their original format. And after a year of monologues it’s great to see a production that situates these four pieces so effortlessly between radio, stage and screen.
Runs here until 31 July 2021