It’s Barry to be Barry

Jan 8 2020 | By More

Shrinking Violet remount James Barry show

The extraordinary tale of Dr James Barry, the Irish born surgeon and Edinburgh University alumnus, is told in Edinburgh-based Shrinking Violet’s play about him which it is taking on a brief tour this month.

Having staged the play at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, with five performances at the Bedlam Theatre, Shrinking Violet is now performing it at the Partisan Collective in Manchester (Fri 10 Jan), Stereo in Glasgow (Sat 11 Jan) and finishing with a one night stand at Summerhall on Sunday 12 January.

The cast of BARRY. Pic: Shrinking Violet

At the heart of the show lies the fact that Barry is regarded by some as being the “first woman graduate” of Edinburgh university – he was was known as a female during his childhood in Cork. However, he lived his adult life as a man after arriving in Edinburgh in November 1809 to study at the Medical School.

“We initially chose James Barry as a subject for theatre because his story is awe-inspiring and inherently theatrical in its scope” Shrinking Violet’s Angela O’Callaghan told All Edinburgh Theatre.

“He was an amazing man – an extraordinary medical professional and a righteous, early activist for the rights of the oppressed.”

However, as the nine-strong company began to explore his story, assuming it would be a lens through which they could explore other themes of interest such as feminism, LGBTQ+ issues and social activism, they began to realise it needed a different perspective.

reconsider the narrative

“Through our devising process, making this show and finding new perspectives which forced us to reconsider our narrative, Barry has stopped being at the centre of our piece, and the show has become one about our own experience, and who has the right to tell a story. Barry is the subject of someone’s play – but we don’t think it should be ours!”

Francesca Sellors. Pic Shrinking Violet

Which does not stop Barry being relevant to the show, or his presence being the catalyst around which the company has come to the production.

“Our company is made up of past and current students of Edinburgh University, where not only is James Barry an alumnus, but where the narrative of James Barry as a “woman oppressed” has been perpetuated, and even celebrated, since his death”, says O’Callaghan.

“Though our company is now made up of women, trans and non-binary people, we were initially a theatre collective made up entirely of cis women. This final version of our production of BARRY is the product of our mistake – in initially deciding to embark on this project we consulted a number of sources that perpetuated a one sided narrative about Barry’s gender identity. In realising this, we had a choice: to stop working on BARRY, or to re-centre the narrative on our mistake.


“Not only our understanding of Barry himself changed as a result of our devising process, but our understanding of our own privilege as cis women. For this reason, when we talk about the show we don’t think of it as a show about James Barry, but a show about cis people making a show about James Barry, and the challenges we face in doing so.

Louisa Doyle and Francesca Sellors. Pic: Shrinking Violet

“We can’t tell the full story of James Barry as a still predominately cis-lead company, but we hope our mistake can educate others to take the time to seek out alternative truths and think about whose stories are being platformed and why.”

The production surely encapsulates the central issues in one of contemporary society’s most bitterly fought debates. Not only highlighting the importance of that debate as one with real human consequences, but also helping to address the misunderstandings perpetuated and amplified on both sides.

“James Barry’s story is as prevalent in a contemporary Edinburgh as it is historically”, says O’Callaghan. “Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people feel more and more unsafe in Scotland’s capital and in its Universities, where transphobia has been on the rise in recent years.

“From around October 2018 individuals began to notice transphobic stickers around the city of Edinburgh, including on the University of Edinburgh’s campuses. Last summer, all twelve members of Edinburgh University’s staff pride network committee resigned after accusing the university authorities of “failing to take a stand against transphobic hate on campus”.

BARRY, through the use of verbatim accounts from trans and non binary people, helps to voice the concerns of people today and helps to work through internalised transphobia.


BARRY on tour:
Friday 10 January 2020:
Partisan Collective
, 19 Cheetham Hill Road, Manchester M4 4FY
Tickets: Book here.

Saturday 11 January 2020:
Stereo Cafe Bar
 20 – 28 Renfield Lane, Glasgow. G2 5AR
Tickets: Book here.

Sunday 12 January 2020
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh EH9 1PL
Tickets: Book here.


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