There has been a trend in recent weeks for online theatre streaming to be relegated back to the second division as playmakers concentrate on getting live performance up and running again. This is perfectly understandable but it’s interesting the concept has not completely evaporated as duly predicted by many once live audiences could return. It is now seen as an extra income stream and provides better access to some sections of the community. It certainly still has its place if only as a hedge betting exercise when everything could change again at a moment’s notice. Original Theatre Company have taken a slightly different view and are still keeping up the flow of material online. Whereas many another company might give their digital theatre shows a few days or weeks of streaming OTC tend to allow their product to mature across months giving it the lure of a long run show. Such is the case with Barnes’ People which was first seen back in February and still has a couple of weeks to run.
I recall making a deliberate decision not to watch six months ago simply because I was getting “monologued out”- the format had become rather ubiquitous – but having appreciated the high production values that I’ve come to associate with the company I have finally taken the plunge. Written at much the same time as their more famous cousins, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, these four solo pieces are the work of Peter Barnes and first appeared on Radio 3 in the 1980s. Necessarily static, indeed all the performers remain seated throughout, they have been filmed onstage at the Theatre Royal in Windsor. The plays are of variable quality but have historical interest and have attracted some starry casting who generally hold the attention.
There didn’t seem to be any particular order to follow so I went for A True Born Englishman first. This turned out to be both the longest and the best of the quartet and also had the added interest of it being broadcast for the first time. Apparently Buckingham Palace originally let it be known that they did not approve of the subject matter and in its deference the BBC shelved the piece. What a delicious piece of irony, as the play is all about deference towards the institution of monarchy as Leslie Bray, a place footman, tells us his story. Played by the always dependable Adrian Scarborough it is a tale of a man whose main function seems to be to open and close a door at the “correct” moment – apparently a job which requires consummate skill and impeccable timing. Scarborough is hilarious yet equally disturbing in his mix of obsequiousness towards his employers and his sense of superiority to – well just about everybody else. He certainly made me reflect that it is not so much the actual monarchy which I object to as the unbelievable servility that so many believe it is their bounden duty to show towards them. This is also the piece which most closely rubs shoulders with the Bennett touchstones in its accumulation of telling detail and the inability of the speaker to see themselves as they really are.
A promising start then but one, alas, that didn’t really get sustained. There are two pieces about disillusioned and even embittered medics – topical, I guess. Jemma Redgrave plays the title character in Rosa who sits in her office making decisions about placing the elderly into care. Deeply committed to the people themselves she is less approving of the system itself. Meanwhile retired Doctor Adams (Matthew Kelly) sits in a graveyard like a latter day Lear, reflecting on further iniquities within society and indeed himself in a play called Losing Myself. Both monologues are shot through with a sense of anger which Redgrave and Kelly bring out beautifully, but I didn’t find them memorable in the same way as the first piece.
The final play, Billy And Me, puts the particular vocal talents of John Culshaw to excellent use. He plays vaudevillian ventriloquist Michael Jennings who also reflects on his life which has been blighted by schizophrenia although he has been able to harness the voices in his head and turn this into a career – of sorts. There’s actually a “cast” of five as Jennings is surrounded by his four dummies the principal of which, Billy, acts as an alter ego; Culshaw, naturally, supplies all the voices and of course does so with a high degree of skill. With more than a passing nod to Osborne’s The Entertainer the subject matter is somewhat hampered by the need to be subservient to the dramatic device and the fact that the voices are actually voice overs perhaps limits the impact.
The quartet is immaculately filmed by Tristan Shepherd and are given a sense of occasion by their setting; directors Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters make the most of the limited opportunities available to them. The pieces are thematically linked by an interesting thread which runs throughout as the various characters and those they speak of’s dependence on alcohol is foregrounded. As much of an issue as it was when Barnes first wrote the pieces it suggests how many still choose to deal with disillusion and stress and pointedly demonstrates that not much has changed in forty years. Doctors are still overworked, mental health issues are still with us and the sycophantic attitude towards power and nobility hovers over us like a dark cloud; never mind, let’s all distract ourselves with 22 blokes kicking a ball round a field!
Production photos by James Findlay
Barnes’ People is available on the Original Theatre Company website – click here
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