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Barnstorm at the Union Theatre

"The events and characters depicted in this play are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely accidental."

24 words that have always struck me as slightly odd – when we see them are we really meant to believe that no conscious action by an author has been made to introduce their own experiences to the story we are about to witness? That such interventions, if they do arise, are always accidental? It seems much harder to accept that these words have ever been written truthfully.

But Barnstorm does perhaps deserve an accolade for having these words printed boldly in its programme when even the press release states that it is a (fictional) account of the aftermath of the biggest robbery Britain has ever seen – the raid on a Tonbridge warehouse in February 2006 that saw 53 million taken, a very real event in my book. And Michael Holland, the writer of the play, has spent 20 years in prison for armed robbery. Is that life-changing experience really only going to affect his writing unconsciously?

But these are minor quibbles with legal nonsense, when what is important is that Barnstorm is a piece of theatre that manages to grip and hold the attention for just a little bit short of two hours.

Set in the barn where three of the gang are hiding out after the robbery, we bear witness to the developing tension as things begin to nosedive for them. First, fellow gang members elsewhere in the country disappear without explanation; then someone outside ‘the firm' (Elizabeth, the woman who owns the barn) pays them a number of visits. It is then discovered that Charlie, the most unhinged of their number, has had his photo printed in the newspapers for all to see; whilst throughout they are trapped in the barn because the car that was due to collect them and their share of the money can't get through the police road blocks. And so it goes on.

The dynamics of the three robbers works well, the friendship of Alan and Bob providing a nice counter to the tension and paranoia Ian Groombridge creates as Charlie.

On occasions though, Michael Holland's writing begins to grate – the Eastenders-esque dramatic line at the end of every scene soon becomes predictable (this audience member found himself mentally doing the “:Dum Dum, Du-du d-d-da” on more than one occasion) whilst the manner in which the characters reveal their natures feels a little too obvious at times. Often you are left feeling that a story from their past is told with their full awareness of what it signifies to their nature – when surely story-telling should be about the stories, and any character traits observed are those extracted by the audience.

The simplicity of the characterisation; the fact that all three villains have a demon lurking in their past whilst Elizabeth, the innocent woman dragged into the mix through her desire to help, is an almost saintly figure, also leads to frustration at times, especially when there is such potential for development. Similarly, Bob's hidden heroin addiction and his remarkably slow descent into the agonising cramps of cold turkey feels too forced. It again has the feel of a plot device introduced for dramatic purpose, not something that grew from the nature of the character.

In spite of this criticism though, I do recommend seeing the show. Robyn Wilson's set is wonderful – the smell of the hay bales giving a wonderful sense that London has been left behind and we are on farmland in the country – whilst her costumes subtly confirm and build the characters as created by the competent cast.

And it is in these that the real credit for the production must lie. The performances of the three robbers and Lucy Russell's Elizabeth are what holds the attention and make this show. Ignore the somewhat formulaic writing and occasionally overly dragged out pacing of the storyline and if you can, concentrate on the way that these problems are overcome by the cast, by the tangible dynamics of the relations between these four people, and a good night out at a wonderful theatre is very much on the cards.

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