“IIt frightens me,’ laughs Samuel Barnett as he makes his first appearance on the Edinburgh stage in a one-act play, aptly titled Feeling Afraid As if Something Terrible Is About to Happen. But this fear is a good thing, he emphasizes. “I want to do something I’ve never done before.”

The play was written for Barnett by Marcelo Dos Santos, directed by Matthew Xia, and brought to the fringes by Fleabag producer Francesca Moody. Barnett plays a troubled comedian – quite a few at the festival – and the show initially takes the form of a stand-up routine. It’s about “how much we lie to ourselves, how much we want to reveal, and how truly vulnerable we are,” Barnett says. Although, he quickly adds, it’s “also very funny.”

Although Barnett gained fame as part of the ensemble in Alan Bennett History boys – and still speaks very fondly of his co-stars, including James Corden and Russell Tovey – he finds solo shows exciting. Back in 2010, he gave a touching and tender performance as a young man struggling with his first tax return and slowly unraveling the loss that has defined his life in James Graham’s The Man at the tiny Finborough Theatre. A one-man show is a particularly revealing form, he says. There’s nowhere to hide – especially in Paines Plough’s Roundabout space, home to his current plays. But it can be incredibly intimate. “Every time I do one of these shows, I have to overcome that initial fear of looking people in the eye and interacting with them.” Ultimately, he says, it’s liberating as a performer. “My real love is new works in small spaces.”

“I need to get over my fear of looking people in the eye”… Samuel Barnett. Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Born in Whitby in 1980, Barnett is part of a large family – one of four siblings. He began acting at a young age before moving to London to study at Lamda and spent most of his 20s playing the role of Posner in Nicholas Hytner’s production of The History Boys. (The defining line: “I’m Jewish. I’m small. I’m gay. And I live in Sheffield. I’ve been fucked.”) He was hooked from the first reading, produced the play at the National and in the West End, toured with it on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony Award, as well as in Australia and Hong Kong, and starred in the 2006 film, also directed by Hitner.

He would be interested to see how a director would react to this play today – particularly the inappropriate behavior of Hector’s teacher with his young students, groping them while they were riding a motorcycle. The boys in the play treat it as a rite of passage. Even though the play was written in the pre-#MeToo era, “we all had issues with it then,” Barnett says. While Bennett and Hittner said it echoes their experiences at the school in the 50s and 60s, the play is set in the 1980s, making it more poignant. Not that the setting changes things, Barnett points out. “It’s not normal. It was never good – you can’t behave like that.”

He says that playing a teenager in this production has kept him “emotionally young” for so long. This and his boyish looks mean it took him a while to be taken seriously as an actor in older roles. But he relishes the opportunity to play characters closer to his own age, as he does in Edinburgh. It used to be easy for him to play naive, but now it’s much more difficult, and at the same time: “I’m probably even more openly vulnerable than I was before, because I know myself, so I can bring more to the role.”

In 2016, he played the title character – a detective who relies on chance to solve cases – in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on the books by Douglas Adams, and recently starred in Four lives, Neil McKay’s BBC drama about the many police failures in the case of Stephen Port, who killed four young gay men. Barnett played Port’s neighbor, who is fired when he first tries to tip off the police, and gives a speech blaming them for the blood on his hands. “It was great to be involved in something that would educate and have an impact, and that was so important to the LGBTQ+ community. There was really something to say.”

Barnett, third from right, with the cast of Nicholas Hinter's adaptation of The Story Boys.
Barnett, third from right, with the cast of Nicholas Hinter’s adaptation of The Story Boys. Photo: BBC/Allstar

Barnett’s father and grandfather died of Covid-19 during the pandemic. This prompted him to research his family history, and he wrote the Middle Series about his discovery that he came from a line of wizards. Like many people who have lost loved ones to the disease, he was unable to be with his father in his final days. “I think it’s a privilege, a human privilege, to be able to go through the dying process with someone,” he says. This was prevented by covid restrictions. “And then it turns out, all these rules were broken anyway. It’s offensive.”

The lockdown at least gave him a chance to grieve properly. “I couldn’t go anywhere, so I had time and space to face it,” he says. As for the government: “I don’t have the energy to waste on being mad at them.” On the one hand, the feelings of anger and powerlessness would be too much, he says, if he gave in to them. But he is also sensitive to the fact that people make mistakes and politicians are people too. It doesn’t get any easier, he says. “But governments fall, and this one will eventually fall.”

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