Having a company of actors open a show by announcing that you are wrong to expect a normal theatrical experience can be a little unnerving. Hearing that the show they are about to perform is also not the show they planned to make is even less reassuring. Yet, what Shrinking Violet have to offer is a fierce and fresh take on theatre-making, portraying how a theatre group set out to tell the story of Dr James Barry and learned some tough truths about themselves and society along the way.
BARRY begins with the company taking us back to when they first began to discuss ideas for a new play. Very quickly, it becomes clear that the group are unafraid to make fools of their past selves, mocking their discussions about making relatable, ‘raw’ theatre. The scenes depicting the group’s brainstorming meetings are hilarious, leading to a random yet riotous drag interlude sticking it to toxic masculinity. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the performance early on perfectly juxtaposes the serious obstacle that soon arises: the realisation that Dr Barry, the chosen subject of their play, may not be the feminist icon they originally thought. Research into the figure remembered as the first female graduate at the University of Edinburgh reveals an argument they did not expect; that rather than being a woman ‘pretending’ to be a man, Barry was in fact a transgender male whose identity has been denied by history. Barry’s misgendering blindsides the group; however, still wanting to tell Barry’s story, they audition Ryan (Ryan Avery-Long), who they hope will add authenticity to the performance.
Ryan’s arrival allows for the second half of the performance to focus on the play the group originally set out to create, with Ryan now in the role of Barry. His portrayal of Barry offers a confident and talented surgeon who fought for social justice in his community with a flare and flamboyancy his colleagues both envied and respected. The comedic element of the show’s opening is also not lost: especially thanks to Jess Haygarth in her role as the judge who oversaw Barry’s campaigning.
However, despite the collective’s good intentions, tension begins to mount between Ryan and the rest of the group, as the limitations of their own (cis)gender lead them to question who has the right to claim Barry’s story. The change in tone is another curveball, yet demonstrates both the seriousness of the situation and the group’s maturity in being able to acknowledge their own flaws.
It is here that BARRY’s importance as a piece of theatre becomes clear. In the final moments of the play, we hear the last of many recorded individuals talking about the significance of Barry’s life and work. This unnamed individual highlights the injustice of denying the trans community their place in history by refusing to consider Barry as a trans male. It’s a comment that ends the play on a serious and sobering note, yet makes BARRY’s message all the more impactful. The stark reality of the trans community’s struggle to protect their visibility and legitimacy within society confirms the importance of theatre created by companies like Shrinking Violet, even if the end-product may not what they themselves imagined the show would be.
The multiple layers that make BARRY seamlessly come together to make for an engaging and, at times, electric piece of theatre. Though it does feel scrappy at times, that only adds to the charm of the performance. In the end, BARRY shows a young group’s willingness to try and do better, and the end-result is all the more worthwhile for it.