Keeffe's Barbarians tip up in Tooting bringing 'astonishing relevance'

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A revival of a drama written in 1977 with “astonishing relevance” to contemporary Britain opened in South London this week. Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians is a trilogy of plays about disaffected youth amid record youth unemployment.

Speaking to independent.co.uk, Keeffe said he was pleased the play was being revisited 30 years after it was written, but is deeply saddened that its “tragic setting” could easily be 2012.

Keeffe is best known for penning the screenplay of 1981 film The Long Good Friday, a British gangster flick which gave Bob Hoskins his breakthrough role and also starred Helen Mirren. In the seventies and eighties Keeffe wrote around 40 plays, notably Gotcha (1977) and Sus (1979) - about the infamous Stop and Search laws. Keeffe has a pleasingly caustic skill for dialogue which renders the serious subject-matter he chooses punchy, accessible and darkly funny.

Barbarians is about three 18-year-old lads from Lewisham called Paul, Jan and Louis and the respective trouble that they get into. The play is full of acute social irony and, in an early scene, the trio find it hilarious when they spot their old careers advisor down the Job Centre queuing for his dole.

This is the first time it has been revived in over twenty years. The outfit responsible for it is Tooting Arts Club (TAC), a newly founded fringe theatre organization. Producer and founder Rachel Edwards came across Barbarians while looking for a script for her third production. “[I read it and] it fit the bill, and then some. The play is astonishingly relevant […] Then, like now, youth unemployment was at an all time high and stories about a ‘disaffected generation’ were regularly on the news agenda,” she told WhatsOnStage.com.

Keeffe said that when the riots broke out across England last summer he recognized something in “that explosion of anger” which was intensely relevant to what happened in the 1970s.

The TAC don’t have a permanent theatre, so the production is being staged at the Broadway Studios on Tooting High Street which, appropriately enough, is an old Youth Enterprise Scheme building.

Keeffe has been loosely involved in the Tooting production of Barbarians which is directed by Bill Buckhurst. “I saw a rehearsal on Tuesday and I was struck by how modern it still seemed,” he said. “I’m very happy with what they’re doing. It is connecting with something real.”

Barbarians is until 12 May at The Broadway Studios in Tooting, www.tootingartsclub.co.uk / For tickets click here

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