One of the joys of reviewing for Everything Theatre is they’re not kidding about ‘Everything.’ Without their open-armed all-encompassing attitude, I may not have had the chance to see the screen documentary Barry & Joan. It’s unlikely to get a huge release after all, and definitely won’t be competing with Marvel’s marketing dollars. This is a crying shame because Barry and Joan Grantham, its stars, certainly deserve to be celebrated.
The film is a treasure trove for history fans. It offers a glorious glimpse of theatre, revue and vaudeville through the ages. With the entertainment industry’s reputation for insecurity and damaged psyches, it is genuinely refreshing to see two seemingly well-balanced and happy troupers on the screen.
The film shows us both Barry and Joan in action, not as turns now but as teachers. The light-on-its-feet documentary captures them running highly regarded workshops and classes. I’m no expert, but they seem to be the people to go to brush up your skills in Commedia Dell’Arte, Pierrot Clowning and the delightfully labelled Eccentric Dancing (Google it, kids).
Director Audrey Rumsey was a student and, it soon becomes clear, remains a huge fan. Everyone seems to be. It definitely makes the film an unashamedly positive portrait: there’s no real dark side. But so what? Give yourselves a break from Newsnight levels of rigour and Piers Morgan-style tabloid outrage: this is a simple, joyful, good news story. And gosh, don’t we need them these days?
The film is shot incredibly actively. When not locked down for one-to-one interviews, the camera is rarely still and often in participants’ faces. It really is fast-paced ‘access all areas’ stuff. The soundtrack is a joy too, with an obscure treat for Bowie fans. It all gives you a real feel for Barry and June at work. Barry is often centre stage, still demonstrating technique with remarkably lithe, fresh, age-defying limbs. Joan is always on hand for an often witty aside from the piano. A ball of mischievous energy, she is the Morecambe to her husband’s Wise.
A key message is that their work centres around play. Contributors – both students and industry experts – refer to the value of silliness, the importance of freedom and the right to try and fail and fail again. Elegance and beauty sit alongside the grotesque and insulting, which is all very liberating. The latter half of the film includes improvised Commedia scenes that bring this brilliantly to the fore.
It’s not all a laugh a minute. Barry talks frankly about ageing, movingly demonstrating the old cliché of performers not countenancing retirement. He thanks Joan at one point for being his favourite dance teacher back in their long lost youth. Even this cynical old reviewer found that incredibly touching and a little sad.
On paper, this is a small, intimate and niche documentary about showbusiness lore, but it defies its limitations and boundaries. Barry and Joan’s world is a happy place, full of their love for each other and their love of art. Visiting, even briefly, will do you the world of good.
Directed by: Audrey Rumsby
Produced and Editing by: Eric Pomert
Distributed by: Screenbound Pictures / Blue Dolphin Films
Executive Producer: Catherine Bonwick
Barry & Joan is released in selected cinema’s on 6 May, check local listings for information.
The film will also tour with a Q&A session, further information and dates can be found on the film’s website here.