Unlimited: Sheila Hill’s: HIM – A Gentle Triumph


Sheila Hill’s Unlimited commission (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) gave reknowned actor Tim Barlow the opportunity to take centre stage at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on 10 September as part of Unlimited Festival. Review by Mik Scarlett

We all live lives where a quiet battle rages behind the scenes. Everyday we awake and go through out day without really noticing the fight between ageing and dying, a struggle that hopefully leads ageing to win out as we go to sleep. If ageing wins for long enough we find ourselves reaching old age, with all of the memories and experiences we built up while dying was kept at bay.

With more and more of us seeing ageing win out for longer than ever before in the history of humanity you’d expect to see stories of those memories and experiences to be told in our art, yet this isn’t the case. Time after time all areas of the arts focus on new talent and youth, ignoring the talent and knowledge of an older generation. HIM demonstrates why this needs to change and that all of us, no matter our age, have something to gain from tapping this forgotten well of skill.

The piece mirrors fond memories of chats that any of us who had the privilege of having grandparents who would sit in the comfy armchairs and tell stories of their youth while we sat enthralled by their tales, just that the arm chair is on a stage and rather than sitting at the tale tellers feet, we are all sat in a darkened theatre.

Black and white headshot of the actor Tim Barlow, in profile

Actor Tim Barlow. Photo © Hugo Glendenning

The number of listeners and the size of the room are soon forgotten as you find yourself drawn into tales of love, life, art, music and hearing loss told with a warmth and honesty that give you a loving hug. That hug is aided by other elements, video clips by videographer Hugo Glendinning, audio transcription and music via the double bass of Sebastiano Dessanay. While of these extra elements add to the art of the piece, nothing can surpass the key gift of the show, the performance of Tim Barlow.

The story itself stems from discussion between Tim and writer Shelia Hills and charts a life in drama, a love of big band music and a struggle to learn to live and thrive with hearing loss. Written with an obvious affection grown out of a long friendship between Hills and Barlow, it is Tim Barlow’s huge talent and skill as an actor that makes the piece.

The performance I saw was beset by technical issues with sound (irony or what?) but Tim threaded his reaction into the piece superbly and this drew the audience to him further. He really did become the loveable granddad filling the room with those stories of the moments that made him who he is today, and the wonder of that journey. Highs and lows and everything in between, but most revolved around his passions and loves, music and acting. He skilfully gave us a glimpse of the young man he once was as he flipped from being seated to dancing around the stage to memories of the music he loves.

An element of the story that resounded with many of the Unlimited Festival audience is the journey of learning to live and be proud of hearing loss. Stories of trying to hide the impairment from work colleagues, fighting to give your best while living in an inaccessible world and the joys of learning to live with pride around disability and difference rang true so many, but also gave an insight for those who have yet to experience a change in their ability or physicality. The most touching story thread for me was the huge importance of music. I have been finding myself recently listening to more and more music from my youth, and loving the waves or memories it brings. This wonderful feeling that music can muster drives the piece, and builds a bond between stage and audience. It’s especially touching as it becomes clear how hearing loss hasn’t stolen this passion for music and the memories it can stir.

HIM is a warm, charming piece that should appeal to all ages, with it’s underlying story that ageing should be seen as a wonderful journey with each day as a building block of a house of memories. It was a joy to see such a talented actor own the piece. Hills and Barlow have created a wonderful production that is a gentle triumph painting ageing as what it is, the payment for years of learning and experience. To sit in the audience gave me a warm glow, just like the afternoons I spent with my grandparents listening to the stories of their youths, with a cuppa and biscuits while the wrestling was on the TV. It’s not often you see a play that makes you feel OK with getting old, but Him paints the world ahead as joyful as the life already lived while reminding you to live each moment of each day on that journey with joy.