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The Ballad of the False Barman

Plays and Players, February 1967, Hugh Leonard

Having walloped ‘Jorrocks’ a few months ago on the grounds that it was old-fashioned, it may seem churlish of me to detest ‘The Ballad of the False Barman’, which at first sight is as modern as you can get. (On closer inspection it emerges as a cross between a depraved ‘Salad Days’ and a second-hand Brecht: but even bad Brecht is better than best Bart, but no matter.) What makes this a gala evening for masochists is not that by comparison it makes John Arden seem as elementary as Ben Travers, but that an author never for one moment convinces us that even he knows what it is all about. Obviously the play is a parable of good and evil. The good is predictably saccharine; but, amazingly, the evil characters are as dismally dull as the barmily saintly heroine. Much of the action takes place in a clip-joint, the like of which could not be found even on the Oudekerksplein in Amsterdam, and which is peopled by whores of all sexes and a crazily homosexual vicar who dresses up in crinoline and stays, and denudes his church of candelabra by way of sexual bribes. This crew is presided over by the ‘barman’ of the title, who is not a man at all, but a bald-headed young woman who dresses as if she were an advertisement for Sandeman’s port. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but we must assume charitably that the author does not intend the awful banalities of the heroine’s plight to be taken literally, as – with her husband, a male whore, in prison for theft – she goes from starvation to infanticide to worse. The first act lasted for an hour and a half and was climaxed by a long, soporific speech from the Barman – or was it her alter ego, the Duke? At this stage I invoked Leonard’s law, which stipulates that certain entertainments may be so villainously bad as to demand the presence of two critics – one for each act. In short, I fled into darkest Hampstead; but even so, Christmas will never be the same again. There were songs aplenty during the never-ending first act, and some of them might have proved worth the listening had they lasted beyond a half-minute or so. The cast worked like mad, but it was like trying to ascend a cliff face on a bicycle. The scene of the disaster was the Hampstead Theatre Club; beyond that, perhaps the whole sad affair should remain anonymous: the actors would, I am sure, prefer it that way, and the author has at least such an original turn of mind that he deserves to be allowed to start over again with a clean sheet.

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