Thursday, 18 February 2021

REVIEW: Barnes' People by Original Theatre Online

Original Theatre Online has produced two multi-camera recording of productions and five made for online productions which have been seen in 37 countries in over 33,000 households. Having enjoyed the Excellent Good Grief about two people coping with the death of a close person I was looking forward to Barnes' People with its stellar casting. I don’t recall having seen work by the writer Peter Barnes (1931-2004) on stage, but these four monologues were written for radio in the early eighties and are described as angry, witty, compassionate, poetic and tough. Whether this is the sort of material one wants to view in a third lockdown when the need to be uplifted by hope and humour is strongly felt may be doubtful and requires the writing to be good, the performances strong and the production effective. Each story can be separately purchased to view and although the producers indicate a preferred order to the four pieces, I could see no logic to the order and strongly preferred two over the other two. 

They are all filmed on the stage of the Windsor Theatre Royals in front of a green screen with the props from the other plays scattered over the stage and seen as the actors make their way to the stage for their performances. The Ghost light on a single stand that is seen on stage at the beginning and end of each play is a poignant reminder of empty stages around the country. In some films, the director reminds us during the piece that we are on a stage with shots of stage lights and the auditorium, but I found this an irritating distraction.

First up we watched Matthew Kelly as Adams in Losing Myself (23 minutes) directed by Philip Franks. Dressed in a grey scarf and a tie, Adams is a former Harley Street Doctor who gave it up to tend the dead in a cemetery and we find him talking to Maurice's gravestone who died in 1950 as the bulldozers prepare to clear the site for redevelopment. He reflects on the alcoholism that drove him from medicine, his loss of faith, his failure to stop the moss creeping over the gravestones and the wife that left him. Kelly is good at delivering the monologue in a gossipy style with a hangdog expression and some of the language is poetic and witty as promised. It is described as a funny play but to me it more odd than comic and leaves a depressing feeling at the end. The edit also distracts as the lighting on Kelly changes for the side shots and close-ups and the look is stronger from front on with the green screen cemetery behind him. ★★★

Second is Jemma Redgrave as Dr Rosa Hamilton in Rosa (23 minutes) directed also by Philip Franks. This piece deals with the crisis of the time in social care and Dr Rose's job running four residential homes with 600 patients and having to assess whether elderly people should be admitted. We hear a number of depressing cases reports of East end of London and soon hear of the impact this work has had on Rosa. She has grown tired of the battle to gain small victories over the last disease, old age and been driven to alcohol. At this time, years after it was written, the idea that the homes are "waiting rooms for death" is chilling and depressing and I found it a very long 23 minutes. ★★

Third is Jon Culshaw as Michael Jennings in Billy and me (22 minutes) directed by Charlotte Peters and is the most successful of the plays. Slickly edited between Jennings the ventriloquist and his dummies, Billy, the Major, Agnes and Uncle O'Pat who sit mouths closed staring at him while we hear their voices. Jennings describes his schizophrenic personality as he argues with himself through the personality of Billy and although he too is depressed there are some funny lines. Jennings says if I sold coffins, people would stop dying but Billy says some of his own brilliance is down to Jennings, although he repeatedly calls him by the wrong name. It's disturbing but interesting and Culshaw creates a believable character who might top the bill at Scarborough! ★★★★

The final piece is A true born Englishman (30 minutes) with Adrian Scarborough as Bray directed by Philip Franks. Scarborough is excellent as the Buckingham House employee who has worked his way up from third Door footman to first Door footman and is now giving an interview to camera to tell his story. His quiet, reverential, and differential style draws you in and he tells the short episodes with a sparkle in his eyes as if he is sharing some special secrets. We hear of Twiggs who 1st employed him there, his parents, his wife, his politics, and the medical problems of working at the Palace. Best of all we hear of how he avoided a royal pile up when the Queen of the Netherlands came to a Palace Banquet. ★★★★

Original Theatre are to be applauded for their response to lockdown and shut theatres and deserve to build strong audiences for their work. These are worthy pieces dealing with mental health and depression and are clearly as relevant today as when written. But whether you watch on a small screen or a SMART TV the balance between dark and difficult, and light and frothy work is important in these challenging times. In Billy and me and A true-born Englishman they entertain and amuse first and for me at least that is what I want at this time.

Review by Nick Wayne
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