Theatre Review: Barbarians

“There’s always a fucking wall in the way. Always get so far, and there’s a wall to block it.”

The characters in Barrie Keefe’s Barbarians, revived at The Young Vic, are always on the wrong side of those walls, struggling to catch a break in a world where the odds are stacked against them. School-leavers Paul (Brian Vernel), Jan (Alex Austin) and Louis (Fisayo Akinade) roam the streets of 1970s Lewisham – a place where even their school Careers Advisor is now on the dole – looking not just for employment but purpose, acceptance and a sense of belonging. Keefe’s play, first staged in 1977, shows us in brutal detail the anger, violence and intolerance that erupts when society turns its back on its youth.

The audience is confronted by the characters’ anger from the second they enter the space. The actors prowl and sneer, making uncomfortable eye contact as you shuffle into your seat and look for a safe spot to place your mid-range Merlot. At this point we are the insiders, the oppressors; representatives of the system. Hemmed in by a sparse, chipboard set, the actors kick and punch and scramble to be heard. Brian Vernel’s Paul, in particular, will not be ignored. The most hopeless of the trio, his predilection for petty crime and physical violence prove to be his only outlets for his anger, embodied in a chilling performance by Vernel.

There’s hope among the bleakness for Louis, recent graduate of a refrigeration course who suspects there’s more to life than his current lot. Fisayo Akinade perfectly captures Louis’ mixture of naivety and burgeoning awareness, saying in our recent interview that “out of the three of them I feel that he matures the most, which is a really great arc to play – that sort of slow realisation that actually your mates may not be the best thing for you.”

Alex Austin does well with a difficult character, stuck between these two worlds – will he find the surrogate family he craves in the army cadets, or does the answer lie with the National Front? Racism is of course the thread that runs through the piece, pulsing with an ugly energy (complemented by the excellent music and sound design throughout) – eventually rearing its head with devastating consequences.

While the material is somewhat dated by references to Thatcher, Doc Marten’s and the Front, Director Liz Stevenson does well to bring to the fore Barbarians’ central warning: that if we turn our back on our youth, the consequences will be dire.

  • Barbarians runs from until 19 December at The Young Vic. Tickets £10/£15 available on the Young Vic website.
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