The Tooting Arts Club, a company that revels in having no permanent home, had enormous success last year with its staging of Sweeney Todd, first in a pie-and-mash shop and then next door to the Queen’s Theatre. Back in town, with Bill Buckhurst’s accomplished revival of Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of short plays, it has now taken over a former art school. It’s fair to say that the work – dealing with youth unemployment, football hooliganism and racial violence – hits harder than most West End fare.
Following Paul, Jan and Louis as they dabble in petty crime, before finding factory jobs and then going their separate ways, is pretty depressing. Keeffe injects a lot of humour, which the performers respond to eagerly, but the frustration and fear that fill their adolescence doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The plays may be 40 years old but, apart from some fun with a themed bar, they are sadly still relevant. These three may seem a little more naïve than teenagers today, but they’re probably just less well connected – the absence of mobile phones is noticeable.
Killing Time is the first one-act play. We get to know the boys in a relatively light-hearted way as they make trouble while on the dole. There’s a great use of the space as they sit with the audience and scamper around tables, along with some extremely offensive language. Josh Williams’ Louis engenders most sympathy. Having completed a course, he may be an expert on refrigeration, but he can master little else. Abide With Me is set outside the FA cup final, as the trio wait for tickets, predictably let down by an adult in their lives. Their search for belonging is palpable, whether as military cadets or football fans: “the best army there is,” says Thomas Coombes’ Paul in a performance that brims with aggression.
For the finale, In The City, we’ve moved from Lewisham, via Wembley to the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are older, although I hesitate to use the word grown up. Jan (Jake Davies) has become a soldier, whose terror at his imminent departure to Northern Ireland informs an impressive monologue. A chance encounter with Louis results in a senseless and disturbing attack – the threat of violence hangs over all three plays, and when it arrives it shocks to the core. There’s a lot to praise about Barbarians, not least three excellent performances, but this powerful and insightful show comes with a warning.
Until 7 November 2015
Photo by Cesare De Giglio