Comedian Angela Barnes tells Veronica Lee about work and her strange hobby.
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 spent her 40th birthday in one.
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, particularly in relation to fellow nuclear power North Korea. “When we woke up and learned he’d been elected we looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll stay here’.” She recounts the tale in her new show, Fortitude, which comes to Birmingham’s Glee Club on 11th May.
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 being born six weeks premature.
While bunkers feature in Fortitude, it 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,” Barnes says. “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 “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, 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 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 provided 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 replies, “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 OK 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 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, more an outdoors man, is not so keen. “One came up for sale recently and I sent him the link. He ignored it,” Barnes says, laughing.
Angela Barnes performs at the Glee Club on Friday 11th May. Tickets