Tooting Arts Club, London
The dark and stormy Wednesday I went to see Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians staged in a now defunct Youth Enterprise Centre in Tooting was also the day that the ONS released the latest UK unemployment figures . The number of unemployed people in the UK currently stands at 2.65 million, with youth unemployment at a record high for ten years.Tooting Arts Club is resurrecting Keeffe’s 1977 state-of-the-nation play – or trio of plays, as ‘Barbarians’ technically is – for its first appearance on the UK stage in 20 years, and it could not be a more timely revival, or a more apposite setting.
Our venue for the night is an off-shoot of the sprawling Broadway Studios (as the buildings have been dubbed after acquisition by the TAC ), and it is far from illustrious – a cold, dismal, pre-fab shack in an industrial-looking courtyard. I took my seat with trepidation, wondering with a sinking heart if this was going to be the worst possible use of a ‘found space’ in fringe theatre, i.e. the ‘this-is-the-only-venue-we-could-afford-so-indulge-us’ kind.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As our three reprobate hosts for the evening explode into the room, we realise that they will be using all of it, and precisely as they see fit. The audience doesn’t so much have their space invaded as never get allocated their own space in the first place. The set is fully reconfigured twice throughout the course of the evening by the actors (sometimes with the unwitting help of the audience), and I am variously flirted with, shouted at, herded from my seat, and offered a chicken wing, all from incredibly close range.
You have to have an audience very much on side to be able to be this disruptive to them, and I can say fairly confidently that almost everyone was in the palm of our three protagonists’ hands within ten minutes. They are captivating performers – the characters are coarse and brash and loud, but instantly likeable and oddly charming. Tyler Fayose is a perfectly-cast and flawless Louis; Jamie Crew as Jan is mostly excellent – but it is Thomas Coombes as Paul whose electric performance truly resonates long after you leave. He perfectly captures the dangerous, rough charisma of the volatile Paul, and you completely believe him as the natural leader of their little gang, a powerful magnet for these disaffected and directionless boys. Coombes also manages an impossible coup in making you root for Paul until almost the very end, despite the hateful qualities that begin to emerge in him as their lives of these schoolboy friends grow apart in adulthood.
Everyone involved in this production has done their job superlatively. The lighting (Catherine Webb), the sound (Josh Richardson), and particularly the design (Olivia Altaras) all deserve recognition – they have made what one assumes must be a standard limited fringe budget into an asset, the minimal but ingenious design perfectly complementing the piece and integrating beautifully with director Bill Buckhurst’s considered and intelligent vision of the piece. This is evidence of a team of cast and crew who have worked together in the best possible way, and one feels everyone’s input in helping to parlay the sometimes jarring pace of Keeffe’s writing (he is prone to the Cartwright-esque trait of suddenly giving his characters long, bleak, self-examining monologues in the midst of snappy dialogue) into a fluid and rich emotional journey.
Tooting Arts Club are doing a brilliant thing in their own right in an area sorely lacking in cultural opportunities and experiences, and they are doing it very well. I urge you to go and support their important and spirited work and see Barbarians. It has heart and bile in equal measure –and, despite being 35 years old – feels bang up to date.
Barbarians runs until 12 May at The Broadway Studios in Tooting.