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Barbarians is a bleak, dramatic production that relives the 1970s

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
A new play staged in a derelict building offers a powerful take on alienation and racism—and is eerily reminiscent of today, writes Antony Hamilton
Issue 2478
‘We won’t be ignored’—the trio try to get tickets at Wembley
‘We won’t be ignored’—the trio try to get tickets at Wembley (Pic: Cesare De Giglio)

Director Bill Buckhurst’s revival of Barbarians is an intimate and intense play about three young lads from south east London.

The year is 1976. Punk has just burst onto the music scene, unemployment is rocketing, and the Nazi National Front (NF) is on the rise.

You’re—quite literally—placed right in the middle of this turmoil. To set the scene, you’re led up three floors in the derelict St Martins School of Art.

The building feels as if it’s been an anarchist squat, with directions to the toilets to graffiti slogans from the time spray-painted on the walls.

It’s where punk band Sex Pistols played their first gig in 1975.

Barbarians’ first scene takes place in a cold and grimy classroom setting.

Paul (Thomas Coombes), Jan (Jake Davies) and Louis (Josh Williams) are unemployed and marginalised. Doing a headstand Jan quips, “England makes more sense upside down.”

The actors jump up on tables and interact with the audience. They complain about the dole and how they’ll find a left hand drive Rover 3500 to steal for Paul’s cousin.

The jovial and naive mood feels real and easy to relate to.

Then they burst in waving batons and shepherd the audience into the next room.

Suddenly we’re outside Wembley Stadium, and Manchester United are playing Southampton in the FA Cup Final.


The group is left outside in the hope of touting a ticket. While it reflects the anger against big football clubs, it’s about much more. “No one will ignore us—we will not be ignored,” screams Paul.

The anger and tension builds until Paul brandishes a knife against Louis.

The trio are eventually torn apart in the final scene.

Louis has turned to the black community and work, where he won’t be racially abused. Meanwhile, Paul has drifted into hooliganism and the NF. Jan’s joined the army for job security.

It’s Notting Hill Carnival and Paul and Jan are waiting on dates from a newspaper ad before Jan is shipped out to Northern Ireland.

He is skittish and can’t relax about snipers—all the while Paul is just bothered about “shagging a black bint”.

The tension in the room builds as the play nears its conclusion.

Jan reaches a point of desperation after an emotional speech, where he draws on his broken childhood and mother’s suicide. Paul has been brutally attacking Louis in an orgy of racist violence.

The climax is tense, offering no relief. It is a devastating consequence of a broken society.

This was Britain in 1976—but it draws many similarities with today.

Former Central St Martins School of Art
111 Charing Cross Road,
London WC2H 0EB.
Tickets from £11.50
Initial run until 7 Nov

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