Barbarians (Young Vic)

The JMK Award winning director Liz Stevenson’s new production of Barrie Keeffe’s play

Barrie Keeffe‘s 1979 play has been a favourite of late: this is its second mid-scale production in London in the space of three months. The last being the revival of Tooting Arts Club’s version at the old Central St Martins School of Art. Now JMK award-winner Liz Stevenson has taken it on. It's not hard to see why Barbarians might speak to today's audiences: it plays out to a the backdrop of high unemployment, a Conservative government and a terrorist war in Ireland.

A trilogy of short plays in one, Barbarians follows Jan, Paul and Louis from Lewisham in the '70s at three different stages of their lives. We meet them just out of school as they cause trouble in parks and on roadsides. There's not much to do, and little hope of a job – especially when you consider that their careers adviser is in the dole queue with them.

Then, later, they're at the cup final, unexpectedly ticketless, having travelled from London to see their team and confronted by an almighty wall separating them from the glorious game. Finally we meet them a few years later, one has stuck at a job, one is in the army and Paul, the leader of the pack is still doing nothing. As a result is a seething, frustrated ball of anger and violence.

It was a state of the nation play then and it still holds onto that title today. Keeffe’s writing teeters on a knife edge, capturing lively yoof banter while also exposing the three men's vulnerabilities, as well as their latent rage, with a punchy lyricism. The three short pieces – which can be seen as a fairly fluid one, and are here – build up, on an inevitable road that leads to a messy, dark and upsetting climax.

Designer Fly Davis has surrounded the Young Vic’s Maria Studio in plywood, with two high boards that the cast bang and jump off at either end of the stage. Stevenson never lets up on pace, and has Jan and Paul giving the audience death-stares from the off. They are intimidating and threatening and they are in-yer-face throughout.

Fisayo Akinade stands out here as the younger, sweeter, more hopeful Louis, who won’t stop talking about his expert training in refrigerators. Akinade is excellent, a muddle of confusion and morals at the beginning, drawn magnetically to the older, more powerful Paul. His evolution from clueless hanger-on to promising young man is convincing. Alex Austin and Brian Vernel are also excellent, radiating a twitchy, unhappy energy brought about by sitting around for too long, broke and bored.

Though there are some meaty performances from the three-strong cast, this Barbarians never achieves the bite it should. Where the final scenes deliver a stomach-churning hit, it takes a while for the pieces to find their weight. The twitchy, restless anger is often dissipated by the fact that Stevenson has the cast stand and jump around behind us. The focus is a little off. But whilst it occasionally pulls its punches, this is nonetheless a promising production from the 25-year-old director Stevenson.

Barbarians runs at the Young Vic until 19 December