A generation ago, Samuel Barnett dazzled in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He brought the house down as sweetly shy Posner with the tragicomic line – “I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f--ked” – and hauntingly sang Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.
Now, at 42, little less boyish but more commanding, in Feeling Afraid..., Barnett takes centre-stage as a mic-wielding gay stand-up with a rivetingly odd story to tell. In a solo tour de force, he combines superb comic timing, chameleonic shifts of tone, and sheer star quality.
Directed by Matthew Xia and written by Marcelo Dos Santos, a 40-year-old British playwright (with Brazilian and Australian heritage), the show is presented by the same producing team that premiered Fleabag. Could this prove a runaway fringe success that then becomes a zeitgeisty hit?
As with the scabrous monologue Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought to the Fringe in 2013, we’re given a slice of modern life that has promiscuity baked in and which blends dark humour and pathos. The unnamed protagonist may be past the first flush of youth – in fact he frets that he’s 36 – but there’s a similar, millennial tendency to share intimate details without hesitation and a lot of angst bubbling beneath the bravado.
Barnett’s funnyman tells his archly self-aware story as an hour-long set, cracking through his gossipy confessional and wooing the in-the-round audience with pivoting turns, knowing looks and much northern camp.
Amid app-facilitated binges of casual sex, this second-tier comic meets a handsome American student who’s not after instant gratification and – shock – doesn’t laugh at his jokes. Can’t. He’s cataplexic. “If you laugh your head falls off?” his enamoured yet ego-deflated boyfriend quips – “Not exactly. But worst-case I could die. Or there is a risk of paralysis.”
Big questions about identity and intimacy leap out like jack-in-the-boxes – but it’s the attention to detail that captivates. The gag-count is ridiculously high and the writing overall has a Bennettian finesse – everything pithily processed: “He stands there, naked, looking to all intents and purposes like the guy Michelangelo dumped David for when he got rich and famous”. Lol. I could quibble that the script needs a bit more industry insider chatter about the slog of gigging and making it, but it’s enviably accomplished. Catch it, then, before everyone else does.
Roundabout at Summerhall (festival.summerhall.co.uk), runs until August 28