Extraordinary, the power and range the late Peter Barnes brought to the monologue form. Though Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are far better known, this quartet of Barnesian soliloquies shot by directors Philip Franks and Charlotte Peters in Windsor’s empty Theatre Royal prove substantially more imaginative and dramatically rich.
Three of them were written 30-plus years ago for Radio 3; the fourth, Rosa, a decade before that. Rosa and Losing Myself, performed now by Jemma Redgrave and Matthew Kelly, are rage-fuelled, baroque rants against social inequality. Exhilarating and bracing, they could have been penned yesterday.
Billy and Me is a tragicomic riff on mental illness in which Jon Culshaw’s ventriloquist discusses schizophrenia with his dummy. In A True Born Englishman, Barnes uses a royal footman (played with lickspittle relish by Adrian Scarborough) to subtly undermine class-bound servility. Originally written for Antony Sher, it has never been broadcast before. Barnes accused the BBC of censoring him by pulling it, typically biting the hand that fed him.
What frees these monologues from the “I-said-he-said” rhythms that become so cumulatively tiresome in Bennett’s, is that Barnes’s characters have a specific audience. Kelly’s character Adams, a former doctor turned gravekeeper, has chosen a random corpse in a cemetery to listen to his litany of loss. Redgrave’s bone-weary, alcoholic Rosa, another doctor, is dictating a career-ending letter to her East End health authority about the crisis in elderly care. Culshaw’s voice-thrower has his dummies: for Scarborough’s Leslie Bray it’s a film crew.
This not only focuses the narratives but liberates them. From the imminent development of his cemetery into luxury flats – I told you it felt timely – Adams spins a theory of capitalism built on the bones of the poor. Rosa fantasises about mobilising an army of the elderly, “battalions of decrepit bodies firing from deformed hips”.
The supposedly loyal servant turns out to be as devious as he is obsequious and gives Barnes a chance to deliver a most excellent “footman” joke. Billy and Me, the only story directed by Peters rather than Franks, is the weakest. Barnes’s blackly comic juxtaposition of music-hall gags and mental imbalance is wilfully jarring, and there’s the perennial credibility gap of ventriloquism on film.
The performances are beautifully modulated and paced, and Kelly and Redgrave, their characters worn thin but lit with inner fire, have never been better. There’s some minimal set-dressing and digital enhancement around the actors, but a large part of the melancholy atmosphere comes from the empty playhouse.
Once again, theatre-makers have produced a captivating hybrid of live performance and film. And once again, the fear that tough times would produce only brainless, feelgood entertainment has been disproved. Rather, we can count the rediscovery of Barnes’s angry, witty, vivid voice as one of the rare plus points of the pandemic. He wrote loads of one-, two- and three-person plays for radio and TV. More please.
Until July 31: originaltheatreonline.com