Going to the theatre always reminds me of being on a long train journey. There’s a sense of collectiveness about it, coupled with the mystery of being nothing more than an anonymous face in the crowd. The lights go down, and you feel safe knowing that your laughter is indistinguishable from the laughter of the people who sit, snugly, around you. 

I’ve got a very limited capacity for mystery, and when I sat down for ‘Barry: A Work In Progress’, my charming friends pointed out that I had reached my peak of self stereotyping, sitting there in a huge jacket, a reporter’s pad balanced on my knee and a Diet Coke in hand. Knowing who you are, and knowing that you are seen as a manifestation of your complex interiority is a very comforting feeling. That’s the whole point of intimacy, being seen and understood and being unapologetically yourself. 

‘Barry: A Work in Progress’, a piece by the Shrinking Violet Collective, examines the question of selfhood and the tensions between interior lived reality and external presentation through the remarkable story of James Barry. James Barry was an army doctor in the early 19thcentury, who trained at Edinburgh Medical School, and upon his death, it was revealed that he was, in fact, ‘a woman’. 

The Shrinking Violet Collective’s piece is a master-class in what happens when people tell stories for two simple reasons; because they must be told and for the sheer, unbridled joy of creation. There is nothing as satisfying as sitting through a play that is delightful to watch and just knowing that it must have been delightful to make. The physicality of the actors was mesmerising and all encompassing in their individual ability to define, and redefine space, time and change. It’s hard to tell a complicated story on a sparse set with four actors, that must not be forgotten. It is testament to their dedication to creating emotional reality that I forgot that I was watching four women, one of whom I know and love, run about the stage with the kind of energy that makes you feel tired by proxy.

Only through dedication and talent does that kind of theatre work, and work well enough that you are leaning forward in your chair, desperate for more. Only real passion and craft lets you get away with a hospital dance sequence that had me crying with laughter at a particularly fetching rendition of ‘Fever.’ Because you can only be silly once you are good, and you can only be good once you are thoughtful. 

‘Barry: A Work in Progress’, used dazzling funny satire that shredded stereotype in one moment and broke your heart in the next. I’ve only been to two plays that made me ashamed to be enjoying myself. One was a horrifying rendition of 1984 by the Headlong Theatre Company, which asked the audience to intervene in the torture scene and used live rats. The other, was Barry. It would have been easy for Shrinking Violet to skirt around what emerged as the central issue of the play; James Barry’s identity as a trans-man. The interviewee’s voices that played over the actors, speaking of issues so poignant that they must be uncorrupted, the refrain of ‘names are important’; all these served to remind us that our desire for entertainment, our participation as a baying member of the assumed audience of the male gaze, distracts us from the complex and emotive issues of performativity, gender and sexuality. 

‘Barry’ played to what the audience wanted; entertainment, a laugh, women in boxers. But then it asked us, why do we want that? And when our expectations of performance are met, who gets left behind? In the end, we are left with Francesca Sellors as Barry, saying ‘we should start again, I told you, but you didn’t see it. We have to go back.’ And of course, they’re right.

‘Barry: A Work in Progress’ was produced and devised by Louisa Doyle, Jess Haygarth, Aggie Dolan, Angela O’Callaghan and performed by Louisa Doyle, Charlotte Hawkins, Chloe Austin and Francesca Sellors.