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Barry & Joan review - quirky documentary about two vaudevillians | reviews, news & interviews

Barry & Joan review - quirky documentary about two vaudevillians

Barry & Joan review - quirky documentary about two vaudevillians

Masterclass in variety performance

Barry and Joan Grantham are considered experts in Commedia dell-arts

If the state of the world is a little too bleak for you right now, do yourself a favour and watch this utterly charming documentary about Barry and Joan Grantham, a couple who have been married and performing together for several decades (Audrey Rumsby's film is vague on the details, but archive clips of them performing date back to the late 1940s). 

They are considered experts in Commedia dell'arte, the comic theatrical artform that dates back to 16th-century Italy and which, the voiceover informs us, provides “the roots and grammar” of European theatre, from Shakespeare to sitcom.

The film is full of nuggets like that, but much of it is taken up with watching Barry and Joan put a bunch of young actors through their paces as they give them – and us – a masterclass in variety performance.

The actors contribute too; they're obviously star-struck but their warm encomiums are testimony to the saying that old dogs have many a new trick. One young actress, a drama school graduate, learns why enunciation is so important; you would think it's obvious, but perhaps not, as Barry insists on hearing those consonants.

Rumsby, herself a former pupil of Barry and Joan's, also contributes, as does Dorothy Max Pryor, memorably labelled “Eccentric Dance Historian”. (Eccentric dance is a thing; most of us know it through Wilson, Keppel and Betty, archive of whom is shown in the film.)

The couple fill in a bit of – although not much – biographical material. Barry, a “ballet boy” from Manchester as he describes himself, trained with Ballets Russes' Stanislas Idzikowski. Joan, meanwhile, comes from a musical family in Sussex and, although she started as a dancer (they met while working on a musical, where she was struck by his shapely legs), she is also a musician and composer and provides piano accompaniment while Barry teaches.

As fascinating as the couple are, Rumsby wisely widens the film's scope; she uses striking hand-drawn animations (by Avi Ofer) to illustrate the main characters of Commedia dell'arte, including Capitano, Pantalone and Isabella, to explain their functions within the form. There's also generous use of archive of Barry and Joan performing and of their heroes, including Gene Kelly and – something to gladden my heart – Max Miller, with whom they worked on several occasions in a career spanning theatre, television and variety.

Barry & Joan is a delightfully quirky film, informative and funny, and capturing a couple of troupers who are two of our few remaining links to vaudeville. A must for anyone interested in the history of theatre and comedy.

They met while working on a musical, where she was struck by his shapely legs


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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