Barnes’ People review – angsty monologues raging against life and death

Most of Peter Barnes’s people in this quartet of monologues are disenchanted. They rail against social inequalities and speak of time slipping away, of losing their faith, and of cosmic disorder. They are more openly angry than the quietly suffering characters in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series, the first of which was written in the same decade Barnes wrote these bite-sized plays.

Resuscitated by Original Theatre Company and Perfectly Normal Productions, they come at a remove from their original form: written for BBC Radio in the 1980s, they are now staged pieces, delivered to us on the screen. Directors Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters seem to want to underline this: a familiar homage to theatre is in the opening of every play, from shots of the empty auditorium (at Theatre Royal in Windsor), to the foyer, chandelier and safety curtain. We see actors walking on to the stage, the camera positioned behind them, so the glare of the spotlight can be felt. The drama cuts away from scenes intermittently to show us – once again – the lights and empty seats. It is a filmic way to break the fourth wall, but it is done too often and feels mannered and unnecessary.

Despite this, there are some fine performances: Matthew Kelly’s retired doctor, in Losing Myself, sits on a cemetery bench, raging against life and death like a modern-day Lear giving vent to his inner storm. Kelly plays his character as a grumpy old man, too angsty to be pitiful, though he tells us he has lost all meaning in life, despite his accomplishments.

Jemma Redgrave’s character in Rosa is also going through a psychological unpinning. Redgrave gives a fierce performance as the eponymous character – another disenchanted doctor – who oversees the care of elderly, often impoverished, people in a residential home. They are considered to be a burden to the world, not only by others but also by themselves, she tells us, wincing with rage. It is an impassioned diatribe like the first, perhaps too polemical in its societal outrage and too static in its drama (Redgrave spends several minutes reading reports out aloud).

Billy and Me, starring Jon Culshaw and directed by Peters, is the quirkiest: a ventriloquist talks to his dummies about his fractured self, and these wooden puppets comfort him as he speaks of his sense of psychic dissolving: “What a sham identity is.” Some of the tonal vacillations between the comic and dramatic feel awkward and imbalanced, but it is an original way to deal with the subject of mental health.

The best of the quartet comes in Adrian Scarborough’s Buckingham Palace footman who has risen to the dizzying heights of First Door Opener in A True Born Englishman. This last offering is also, deliciously, the radio monologue that was never played by the BBC, reportedly for its comment on royalty.

It is gorgeously paced, alongside Scarborough’s spellbinding performance. His character shines with pride as he speaks of a lifetime of servility and the natural “superiority” of those he serves. His words are underlain with rabid jingoism and reflect damningly on the British class system: “The Germans have schools for servants … We English don’t need to be taught. It comes natural.”

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, he is given too much humanity to be satirised, but he is a dubious narrator all the same: “I have avoided thoughts because every thought makes trouble,” he says, choosing to live unquestioningly in a retrograde world of solid certainties. Maybe this is why he is not disenchanted like Barnes’s other characters, who simply can’t stop thinking.

The script, at times, feels overwrought or expositional across the four monologues, but at its best it soars and sounds like poetry. This is a curious collection, but worth watching even if only for the pearl that nestles at its end.