‘Where you choose to live, or where you’re from, make you who are you are – in every single way.’ For someone deeply interested in connection between character and place, Luke Barnes has picked a very strange place to meet. Shoreditch House near Liverpool Street is not your normal haunt for young playwrights. It is a private members’ club, full of very tanned and smiley people in very smart and shiny clothes. Frankly, it’s a little try hard. I prepare myself for the worst: a poser playwright. But then I get a text; ‘I’m the chap in the grey T-shirt, don’t worry if you’re late!’ He sounds nice. I spot Barnes, in a crumpled top and with a mop of messy hair, hunched over a laptop. He’s drinking water. He looks normal. Barnes opens his mouth, ‘Alright mate!’ I mentally exhale. If Luke Barnes is a poser, then I’m the pope.
After a chat about the posh gym clothes on show at Shoreditch House – and a few apologies for sounding ‘wanky’ – Barnes gets going on his favourite topic of all time: football. Barnes was born in Liverpool and has supported the club all his life.
His breakthrough play, Bottleneck, was set against the Hillsborough tragedy and his latest show is all about Southampton football club. It sounds a bit samey – football followed by football – but The Saints marks a huge shift in writing style for Barnes. Bottleneck was a scruff-of-the-neck one man show. It was sweaty and sweary and had a simmering pub lock-in energy to it. The Saints, on the other hand, is going to be staged in an open air pop-up stadium in the heart of Southampton. It’s going to be a ‘family show in the purest sense’ – which means ‘no swearing and no cock jokes’.
The Saints sees Barnes take his writing in a totally new direction: ‘I think this play has pushed me into a whole other area. The stuff I’m doing next year is more of this ilk now. It’s a bigger cast, a bit more theatrical and more of a spectacle. It’s been really good for me as a write to do this because I could probably have got away with doing a few more years of studio plays, saying fanny jokes the whole time!’
The PG-rating has forced Barnes to think about his characters differently: ‘It’s a good exercise if you take out the swear words. I don’t think it changes your characters but I do think you have to work harder. It means, as a writer, you have to refine what you are saying and make that very clear, as opposed to just throwing energy at it.’
The Saints is as much about family and security as it is about ‘kicking a ball about from side to side.’ Football is ‘the one thing the fans know is going to be there. It’s the one hour and a half a week when they know that bad shit isn’t going to happen. That’s a really important part of it that people don’t think about. It’s the place for escape.’
Barnes also hopes the play will give his audience a real sense of Southampton and how it is to live there: ‘I think it’s a fucking lovely place – beautifully located, fields and trees and everything’s clean and the people are nice – and it’s not too expensive.’
Early on his career, Barnes was commissioned to write a short play, A Wondrous Place, about his hometown Liverpool. Ever since, he has strived to create a strong sense of place in his plays and to challenge lazy stereotyping: ‘Liverpool, from the outside, I imagine people think of tracksuits and crime and fights but I don’t think the city is like that. I think that architecturally – and as a people – it’s a fucking beautiful place.’
In fact, Barnes might just be more obsessed with cities than he is with football. Get Barnes talking about the connection between place and personality and his speech, already very fast, goes up a gear: ‘When I was born my granddad wrote me this letter and he said, don’t forget the blood of miners and dockers run in your veins. It’s fucking gorgeous and it’s fucking true! Where you are born is connected to everything – even the way you speak. The reason that Liverpudlians are so piercing is because they were talking over the noise of the ships. In Yorkshire, the reason they have this lilt is because of the hills. Just everything! Where you are from and the culture you learn from creates the essence of you.’
Barnes enthuses about Alan Bleasdale’s classic 70s TV show, Boys From The Blackstuff, which was about a ‘bunch of unemployed lads in Liverpool’. He talks me through the final episode in exquisite detail: ‘They take one last tour of the docks – and the docks are now desolate and empty and derelict – and they say ‘This is what we’re from. This is the blood in our veins. This is what made this city what it is. This is why we speak this way, why we have these massive buildings, why we behave the way we do. This is the centre of everything.’
Barnes describes this scene with such enthusiasm that I can practically see the docks shimmering in front of us. This connection between city and character clearly means a great deal to Barnes and is something he hopes will come through in his play; ‘Once you understand why a place exists – the docks in Liverpool or the marina in Southampton – then you get to the heart of its soul and its people.’
The Saints is at at Nuffield Playing Field, Southampton, from 1st-17th August 2014