Reviews West End & Central Published 4 December 2015


Young Vic ⋄ 1st - 19th December 2015

Revisiting Barrie Keeffe’s still-relevant play.

Verity Healey
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Photo: Tristram Kenton

What do you do when you feel let down by society? When school, work and even the football clubs kick you out so that you no longer have a sense of belonging? Well, in frustration, some will resort to violence, others will try to make a go of it and haul themselves up by “rope and anchor” over the wall, through the “glass ceiling” only to be brought down again by the cruelty of fate. Others will rise up only to self destruct.

This is explored in Barbarians, Barrie Keeffe’s 1977 play here receiving its second revival in quick succession. In JMK Award Winner Liz Stevenson’s production, it is not the violence, the self harm, that shocks, rather the sheer utter sense of despair, uselessness, powerlessness and hopelessness that comes with the shattering of the illusion of belonging.

Skinheads Paul and Jan are, by turns, cocky and compassionate, infantile and infallible, virtuous and vitriolic. Lacking education, leadership and hope, their bullied and racially abused friend Louis descends with them into a hell where ambitious and competitive tendencies are thwarted by social pressures. These trigger murderous internal jealousies and violent frustrations. It’s a ‘skewered’ world where even the amount of abuse suffered can make a positive contribution to a person’s idea of their self worth.

On BBC Radio 3 Keeffe talked about how ‘sadly’ his play still seems relevant today. Stevenson’s production teases this relevance out, taking the skinhead’s line “it’s celebrities who make society tick” and developing the set into not only a walled prison and hostile looking flats that Paul repeatedly kicks, but into a kind of catwalk  around which the actors free run as if in their own movie or play (which of course, they are).

Fly Davis’ multi level walkways and flat roofs also gives the chance for the characters to bask in Matt Leventhall’s hot spotlights and haunt the space like emotionally churned up James Deans. The production also brings to mind scenes from Stephen Frear’s film My Beautiful Laundrette.

This first comparison is not by chance, everyone wants to be a James Dean, to be a superhero: there’s a wonderful sense of letting go towards the end of the first play in this trilogy, where the characters indulge in their childishness, redacting their confused fumbled explorations of the adult world in favour of something far more primal and burning. It’s this burning, but also a sense of growth, that Stevenson and the actors also tease out.  This comes to a beautiful culmination when Fisayo Akinade, as Louis, is lit like a chrysalis that is just about to break open.

Brian Vernel’s Paul is filled with a terrible anger, only slowly revealed. His hard-man veneer hides a sullen, petty violent babyishness. Louis’s trajectory as a character is the reverse of this; Akinade shows him growing in confidence as the play progresses, even if he’s still dominated by his sense of inferiority and fear. Alex Austin’s Jan is the least sure of himself and the least aggressive, but he has the biggest monster to hide and the actor’s emotional reveal is acute and raw. There’s some terrific ensemble work here from a fine trio of talented young actors as well as some boisterous and insightful directing from Stevenson.