Ah, London. So much to see, so little time. In some ways it was almost an academic exercise to click a link from Lyn Gardner’s recent article on “plays with staying power” to see just what was going on at the “Tooting Arts Club” with its revival of the play Barbarians – it’s not like I had any free spots on my May schedule to add in another play. And, truth be told, her description of the play as “searingly topical in a time of rising youth unemployment” wasn’t entirely enticing. But, since I live in Tooting, I was interested to think good work was being done locally. I poked around the website and became a bit more intrigued by the show. Then a friend cancelled for dinner and suddenly I had a free night. Hooray, I thought, I’ll see a show near the house! But then … disaster! It was already sold out! WHAT TO DO NOW!
Suddenly … I had to see it. I decided to just risk being turned away and hope for a return. To make it just a little more exciting, I did it on a day when I was going to be leaving from north London with about 5 minutes to spare. Panting and sweating after my dash up the stairs at Tooting Broadway, I showed up at the venue (late, mind you!) to be told … yes, it was sold out, and the three people who had just gone in were the remains of the returns queue. HORRORS! I guessed it was going to be a nice solo dinner at Dosa and Chutney … but then the nice lady stuck her head in once they got seated, waved me over, and pointed me to a lone chair in a corner. “We’ll settle up at the interval!” she whispered, and I WAS IN!
Well, after a week of bloodless performances, I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to get to see a vibrant production like Barbarians. I knew nothing about it at all, really, other than it was about unemployed people: in this case the youth of late 70s/early 80s Britain (as near as I could tell) – an era in Britain that I idolized as a teen in America.
But what a world! The characters are the scary skinhead looking guys with their Doc Martins on – living in a world where there’s no jobs to be had and a fun night is breaking into a conference room and stealing booze from the kitchen, where your friends tell you that taking a job working with women is degrading yourself. No wonder so much music was being created here then – what else was going on? But it seemed like a miserable time to be young and out of a job, when even making an investment in yourself (getting practical training in “the trades,” what the government here seems to want every poor kid to do now that they’re trying to price them out of going to university) isn’t rewarded by employment.
I learned a lot about a different world and a sort of different time watching indecisive Jan (Jamie Crew), dreamer Louis (Tyler Fayose), and temperamental Paul (Thomas Coombes) deal with getting jobs, getting into a football match, and getting laid. I thought a lot about the title of the play and the characters shown. Each of them came out so different that it was hard to say that “it was their environment that done them wrong,” but looking at it all you can’t help but start to think in what kind of world can you make it easier for people to live lives where they have a little more to look forward to. And what I also thought about was how, underneath the anarchy and violence, part of what made life worth living for these guys was the friendship they had for each other – something which just made the whole thing wind up hurting a little bit more.
The setting, in a garage where the actors walk through and around the audience while performing (instead of them stage, us chairs) was really awesome and gave us a lot greater opportunity to appreciate the fantastic acting. I lost my sense of these people being performers and not the characters they were representing. This does not happen to me often. When I realized it had happened, that I’d bought into the characters being real, I realized I’d happened across that rare thing: a piece of theater so good that breaks down the walls of reality. Nice job, guys, I hope to see all of you again and look forward to whatever Tooting Arts Club puts on next.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 9th, 2012. The final performances are on May 12th but there are rumors there might be an extra show added. Please check the website or the Tooting Arts Club Twitter feed for details.)