Its latest production, which opens this week at The Broadway Studios on Tooting High Street, is a revival of Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians. First performed in 1977, the play is set in a period of record highs in youth unemployment, government spending cuts and social unrest - making it ripe for revisiting.
Here, the company's producer and founder Rachel Edwards tells us more about it.
Rachel Edwards: When Tooting Arts Club was formed, some 18 months ago, I was obliged to write something on our website about who we were and what we intended to do. A mission statement of sorts. So I began, and what I ended up with - to my dismay - was a lot of insincere box-ticking jargon.
What I really wanted to write was something so simple that it seemed obvious - so straightforward it was barely worth printing - more mission sentence than statement. What I came up with was ‘We intend to produce plays both old and new in various venues in Tooting.’ Not very sexy, admittedly, but at least it is entirely honest. Tooting is a fantastic place to live, as described by the local MP Sadiq Khan, ‘Tooting is everything that is best about our country - a truly broad community with people of different backgrounds, races and cultures.’ So how do you go about choosing plays for such a broad community? Well, quite simply, you don’t. You don’t chose plays for the ‘community’. You choose excellent, well written plays, and that is the only criteria.
While I was looking for a play to stage as Tooting Arts Club’s third production, I read Barrie Keeffe’s 1977 play Barbarians and was immediately worried. It fit the bill, and then some. The play is astonishingly relevant. The issues concerning young people in late 70s Britain are starkly similar to those that are faced by the youth of 2012. Then, like now, youth unemployment was at an all time high and stories about a ‘disaffected generation’ were regularly on the news agenda. As many producers find, once you find a play you love, a sort of nervous anxiety kicks in, induced by the simple fear that the rights might not be yours for the taking and you will therefore have to put this seemingly perfect work back on the shelf. This, amazingly, was not the case with Barbarians, and now some three months later with rehearsals well underway I am more thrilled than ever that we have it in our clutches.
I wanted to bring Barbarians to Tooting for a variety of reasons. First and foremost (and as our criteria insists!), because Keeffe’s play is quite simply a brilliant piece of writing. The dialogue is astonishingly fresh, and, in turn, both brilliantly funny and incredibly moving. The characters of the three male protagonists are all beautifully drawn. These are the type of lads that I grew up with in Tooting, these south London boys are people I know, and I believe our audience will know too. More than this though, I strongly believe - and it is very much my hope - that our audience will include the type of lads we meet in Barbarians, and that for me is incredibly exciting.
The familiarity to local audiences of the issues facing the three young protagonists in Barbarians is hugely important, and one of the key reasons for choosing this play. When Barrie Keeffe was asked about how he felt about the revival he responded by saying "While I am pleased Tooting Arts Club are reviving Barbarians I am saddened that the three plays of the trilogy appear to still have the shocking relevance now as they did when first written more than 30 years ago." Sadly, it’s a view I fear may be shared by others in our audience.
The venue for Barbarians is an old Youth Enterprise Scheme just off the high street, which we have been kindly allowed to use by Wandsworth Council. Given that youth unemployment is one of the central themes of the the play I am really excited that we have secured this wholly appropriate venue for what I believe to be a very timely revival of this fantastic play.
Barbarians runs from 17 April to 12 May at The Broadway Studios in Tooting.