Luke Barnes started with a question. That question sparked a conversation, which prompted a workshop which in turn led to a performance.
And now the award-winning Formby playwright’s Lost Boys – the result of that process of creation – is coming to the Unity Theatre for a week-long run ahead of a Merseyside community tour.
The National Youth Theatre show, directed by Zoe Lafferty and with original music by Dom Coyote, will be staged from September 4-11.
Actor-turned-writer Barnes spent 11 years as a member of the National Youth Theatre himself and that experience fed into the idea for his latest piece.
He says: “Paul Roseby, who runs the company, asked ‘what are you thinking about?’ And I said, well, I guess the main thing I’m thinking about is the idea of what ‘national’ means. I don’t really feel like many of these organisations who claim to be national organisations are actually making work IN the nation.
“I want to do something I think gives voice to people outside the capital who don’t necessarily have the means or desire to make work in or be in the capital.”
The 30-year-old had previously worked on a number of productions with young people and says he came to the conclusion that rather than “trying to educate” his audience he should instead be listening to them.
“I thought, what I’m doing is asking young people questions I think will help other young people feel less along and find ways to work through things,” he adds.
“My question here was – what is it about the patriarchy that stops men from being happy?”
NYT Lost Boys in rehearsal. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
The result is Lost Boys, described as ‘a humorous and heartfelt look into the lives of the youth of one northern new town, where the weight of identity, place, and masculinity threaten everything they’ve ever known’.
NYT workshops took place last year and resulted in a performance in Skelmersdale.
Why that particular location?
Barnes explains: “Growing up in Liverpool I always felt like no one cared about this city. Manchester’s got a lot of attention, Birmingham, Glasgow they do a lot of stuff in. But this is the seventh biggest city in Britain and I always felt completely out of the loop.
“But the other reason is that the play is about the dangers of rigidity of gender, like toxic masculinity, and I think Liverpool has got a real issue of that with young people here. Living here I definitely see that in people I encounter.
“Skelmersdale is an area of low cultural capital that has massive disengagement with the arts, and National Youth Theatre has got absolutely no links to the place.
“So when you have someone like the NYT come here, and they’re doing stuff in Nottingham now and other towns across the UK, it’s acknowledging that your perspective and existence and your validity as an artist is equal to anyone else’s.
Tom Isted in rehearsals for Lost Boys. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
“Going to Skem was maybe saying you may be a small new town outside Liverpool but you’re still valid. I think that’s really important.”
His creative process for Lost Boys has certain similarities with an earlier piece in Barnes’ writing career, The Jumper Factory, which was created in collaboration with inmates at Wandsworth Prison and considered ideas like masculinity, bravado and bottling up feelings.
“The days of playwrights in the old traditional sense, sitting down and writing a play and getting someone to produce it, feel to me like they’re waning,” says Barnes. “And I think for a very good reason. Because no one speaks for everyone.
“Times are changing, and I think rightly so.
“The last thing we need are more playwrights who think they know the answers, sitting in their bedroom writing a play. What we need is allowing communities to have conversations (in communities) about how we address things that stop us being progressive, whatever that means to you.”
While he believes Liverpool is a good fit for Lost Boys, Barnes also has his own firm views on how his home city is often portrayed to the outside world.
“If you live here and you’re from here and make art that’s seen by people, you have a responsibility to influence what the conversation about the place you live in is. And that means the story you tell.
“If you’re telling stories about poverty and depression and alcohol abuse and drug abuse, that will become the way your home is seen in the national conscience, like it or not.
“Of all the stories you can tell, why insist on perpetuating the narrative of ‘it’s grim up north and everyone’s sad’? Because it’s not the case.
“People do have a hard time, but in my experience living here they also have a sense of human resilience, of love and of humour. Why not celebrate that resilience rather than try and dramatize pain?"
Lost Boys is at the Unity Theatre from September 4-11. Tickets HERE