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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Barnes' People
Original Theatre Online    February- March  2024

Along with his stage plays and film adaptations, playwright Peter Barnes (1931-2004) wrote several series of radio monologues between 1981 and 1990. Original Theatre filmed four of them in 2021 and now makes this compilation available online.

The format of having the speaker address the camera directly resembles Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, though Barnes generally avoids the bizarre or macabre revelations or plot twists Bennett favoured.

His characters tell us what they set out to tell us, with only subtle hints of there being something more or other to their stories.

In 'A True-Born Englishman' Adrian Scarborough plays a senior page at Buckingham Palace, a man whose job consists largely of opening doors at just the right moment so the Royals don't ever have to touch them.

What seems at first a mildly comic pride in his small role turns a little darker as he betrays an unwarranted snobbishness – 'I like wearing a uniform. It sets you apart from all those dirty people' – which fits uneasily with an instinctive knowing-his-place servility.

In 'Rosa' Jemma Redgrave is a doctor specializing in the care of the elderly whose career has been driven by a rage against a care home system that seems content to warehouse the old, hoping they will die quickly and inexpensively. It is when she realizes that she has run out of the ability to hate that it is time to retire.

A character who does discover something about himself as he speaks is the doctor played by Matthew Kelly in 'Losing Myself'. The man has retired after years of admired and charitable service and now sits in a graveyard chatting to his favourite tombstone.

But as he talks of lives saved or bettered, a wife and child gone and honours awarded, he realises that he never really connected with any of them as individuals and has been as alone in life as the Victorian stranger he's addressing is in death.

Weakest of the four monologues is 'Billy And Me,' because it has the most difficulty avoiding cliché. Jon Culshaw plays a ventriloquist, and as in every other play and film about ventriloquists ever, his dolls come alive and start arguing with him.

To be fair to Barnes, they don't turn sinister or try to take control of him, but just challenge him to justify what he does.

The monologue is too short and undeveloped for his answer, which involves the suggestion that venting might be a useful treatment for mental illness, to be satisfying.

All four actors succeed in the instant characterisations required by the genre and, at no more than 30 minutes each, none of the four are extended too long to sustain the reality or outstay their welcome – indeed, the Redgrave and Culshaw monologues might have benefited by being longer.

The opportunity to watch four skilled and personable performers at work and the small insights offered in Barnes' writing make this just-over-90-minute video worth your attention.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Barnes' People - Original Theatre Online 2024
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