Thursday, 16 August 2018
LOTS of people have unusual hobbies but comic Angela Barnes takes it to another level.
She researches and visits Cold War nuclear bunkers — and such is her fascination with these now abandoned concrete structures that she even spent her 40th birthday in one after her boyfriend surprised her with the trip in November 2016.
“He whisked me away to this bunker in the middle of Monmouthshire, which has been converted into a little guesthouse,” she says.
Their visit coincided with the election of Donald Trump — surely the most bellicose US president in living memory (although sit-down talks with North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator Kim Jong-un are due to start any day now).
“When we woke up and learned he’d been elected we looked at each other and said ‘We’ll stay here!’” laughs Barnes.
The tale is one she recounts in her new touring show, Fortitude, which comes to the South Street Arts Centre in Reading on Saturday, May 19.
But Barnes is no doom and gloom merchant who thinks armageddon may be upon us. In person she’s chatty and upbeat, and explains that her interest in nuclear bunkers came out of her love of history.
“I’m interested in the Second World War and the Cold War period,” she says, “and I also really like Brutalist architecture — so nuclear bunkers fit into that.”
It also goes back to her childhood. “I always loved being in small spaces and was forever hiding, and my parents would find me in a cupboard or something. My dad used to call me a claustrophile,” Barnes says with a laugh, putting her odd behaviour down to having been born six weeks premature.
While bunkers feature in Fortitude, the show is in fact much more about the passing of time.
“I wanted to write something about turning 40 but I didn’t want it to be a show simply in which a middle-aged woman talks about middle-aged woman things,” says Barnes.
“I wanted to talk about how people treat you when you are a childless woman, and more broadly about what it’s like to turn 40 in today’s society.
“I’m only one year in, but so far I’m loving my forties. I think the pressure’s off — whether it’s to have children, get married or own a house. People will eventually stop asking me about having children, and I know I can do all sorts of things when I feel ready.”
She describes herself as being “part of the Peter Pan generation”.
“I describe it as the generation that can remember drinking the first alcopops,” she says. “The strict definitions of when you did things like graduate, get married, buy a house, have kids, and how to dress — I still dress like a toddler — defined our parents’ lives. But we feel we don’t have to grow up or settle down.
“Having said that, I wouldn’t want to be a millennial for anything — what with the pressures of social media, not being able to afford a house, or what will happen with Brexit.”
Barnes came to comedy relatively late. She was 33 when she started gigging in 2009 before winning the BBC New Comedy Award in 2011.
She quickly established herself on the comedy circuit and is now a regular guest on topical panel shows such as the BBC’s Mock the Week and The News Quiz.
The Londoner, who has recently moved to Brighton, trained as a nurse and later worked in mental health and social care with people in hostels and those with substance abuse.
Barnes’s family, meanwhile, has furnished her with some rich material — her father ran a sex shop and she knew he was a naturist, but it was only after his death that she discovered he was a keen swinger too.
His story formed the core of You Can’t Take It With You, her debut show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, which garnered rave reviews.
Barnes has also talked on stage about spending time in a psychiatric ward when she was a teenager. Does she worry that her comedy might be too revealing, or too personal?
“No,” she says, “because unless your show is, say, surreal or character comedy, it needs to be relatable to people in the audience. They want to go away thinking they know you a little bit, otherwise it’s just me talking at them for an hour — how arrogant is that?
“I’m quite happy to talk about personal things, but not necessarily when I’m going through them. You need time to reflect on what’s happened, and then see the funny side — it’s the old line about tragedy plus time equals comedy.
“You have to be sure you’re okay with it. When I did the show about my dad, he had died some years before, and when I spoke about my teenage problems on stage it was 20 years on.
“I’ve always been an open book about my life but I would be guarded if it’s not my story to tell. I mean, I mention my boyfriend on stage but I wouldn’t talk about something that’s happened to him, or that he’s been affected by. It’s his story, not mine.”
Barnes first performed Fortitude at the Edinburgh Fringe last August, where it gained critical acclaim and was a hit at the box office.
But the run also gave her an excuse to hunt down another nuclear bunker — this time in nearby Fife — and do a show there.
“It had room for 15 people so three other comics and I hired a minibus and we took the punters there. I gave a guided tour and then we did a show.”
She would love to own one of these structures, although her boyfriend, who is more of an outdoors man, is not so keen.
“One came up for sale recently and I sent him the link. He ignored it,” she laughs.
Barnes is on the lookout for more bunkers — there were 1,500 built around the country that were subsequently decommissioned in the Nineties after the Cold War ended — so who knows, there may be a comedy show coming to one near you soon.
The Scotsman’s reviewer wrote of Barnes’s show that it “feels like a sure-fire bet the instant she utters her opening lines” while the verdict of the Chortle comedy website was that “the pace is fast, the material strong and the delivery perfect”.
• Tickets for Angela Barnes at the South Street Arts Centre are £14 with concessions £12. The show is recommended for ages 14 and up. To book, call 0118 960 6060 or visit www.readingarts.com. Barnes also plays the comedy cellar at South Hill Park, Bracknell, on Friday, July 27. For more information, visit www.southhillpark.org.uk. For a full list of the comedian’s live dates, visit www.angelabarnescomedy.co.uk
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