WASTELAND Interview

Fascinating interview on the Nottingham Evening Post website …

A former University of Nottingham student has written a play inspired by the Tony Martin case – the Norfolk loner who was jailed for more than three years after he killed a teenage burglar from Newark, Fred Barras.  JENNIFER SCOTT asks Laura Lomas why she ventured into such controversial territory for her first full-length play – due to be performed at the Lakeside Arts Centre on May 22 – and just where her own sympathies lie.

In April 2000 the conflicting passions over the Tony Martin case had reached their height.  The Norfolk farmer was lauded by the tabloids as a hero after he fended off burglars at his secluded home – Bleak House – with a pump-action shotgun.  One of them – 16-year-old Fred Barras, from Newark – was shot in the back and killed. His accomplice and best friend, Brendon Fearon, 29, was wounded.  So when, nine years ago, the farmer was sentenced to life imprisonment (of which he served just over three years) few people outside the immediate community of Newark spared a thought for Fred.  In death, as in life, he was written off as a wrong’un.

But, in a town 40 miles from Newark, another teenager was perusing the press with mounting feelings of discomfort.  “I was about 15 or 16 at the time. I remember it was a really big story,” recalls Laura Lomas, who grew up in Littleover.  “I felt quite uncomfortable with it all,” she says, referring to the straightforward hero/villain casting of everyone involved in the case.  I think the press demonised Fred as a boy who deserved to be shot, because that’s what you deserve if you break in.  “Actually he was a 16-year-old boy that died alone in an orchard, away from home, and I think there’s something just unbearably tragic about that.  The press really simplified that case. I don’t know Tony Martin or Fred Barras’s family.  “But, when you read about him, Tony Martin seems quite paranoid, owing to the fact he had a gun and had booby-trapped the house.  I think Martin is a very complex person so to valorise him is really problematic.”

Laura, 23, went on to graduate from the University of Nottingham in 2007 with a first class honours degree in English.  During that time, she was selected as one of “the 50”, a Royal Court Theatre and BBC initiative to support new writing.  She had dreamed of being a playwright ever since she did a work placement to the Royal Court Theatre at the age of 17.  For her first full-length play, she was commissioned in 2007 by New Perspectives, a Nottingham-based touring theatre company, to write Wasteland, inspired by the Tony Martin case.  The project was jointly conceived by the playwright and the company as being “pertinent to Nottinghamshire” and something that had never been properly explored.

Laura, who now lives in London, is quick to point out that her story is a work of fiction, not fact.  Yet there are parallels between her characters and their real-life counterparts – in terms of age and status, if nothing else.  Fred Barras was, of course, accompanied by Brendon Fearon, then 29.  He was jailed for three years in 2000 after admitting conspiring to commit burglary, and served 18 months.  Darren Bark, who also went to the farm, got 30 months after admitting the same offence.  Tony Martin later had his murder conviction reduced to manslaughter and was released from jail in July, 2003.  He returned to Bleak House, where he continues to live.

Wasteland tells the story of vulnerable 16-year-old Newark lad Jamie who is trying to break free of a troubled past, and his step-brother Clayton, 33, who persuades Jamie to do “one last antiques theft” – at the property of a man who shoots foxes and leaves them to die, slowly.  The Tony Martin story was, says Laura, nothing more than a “jumping off point”.  She had no wish to face the kind of controversy that has dogged recent works of “faction” like The Damned United – an acclaimed novel that upset Brian Clough’s family by turning the Forest legend into a ranting, boozing “character”.  “It’s only been a few years since Fred Barras was shot,” she says.  “Something like that is so raw still.  It would have been wrong for me to have gone in and laid claim to that story.  “I didn’t feel for a minute I could go, ‘This is Fred Barras’ because I never knew him.  And Brendon Fearon is still alive and walking around Newark.  “But originally I did conceive my characters as roughly equating to those two people.  However, what I was interested in was looking at some of the issues of social injustice.”

The social injustices Laura tries to address in her play centre on the disadvantaged social background of rural towns – in particular Newark.  “Obviously the press dealt with a lot of the issues surrounding Tony Martin … but I was more interested in looking at what had led two boys to go in a van and loot a farmhouse.  I wanted to look at that society and that community.”

She visited Newark several times during her research, studied newspaper clippings and spoke to a traveller liaison worker (Fred Barras was from the travelling community), but did not meet anyone who knew either Fred or Brendon.  “I was interested in the world of Newark,” she says. “It’s quite a strange place.  There’s this gorgeous high street and this beautiful castle but it conceals this massive housing estate.  “I was quite interested in what lies behind the frontier of this beautiful castle and also what you do if you grow up in Newark – what is there for you to do.  The answer to that is probably not much and that may be why people get into petty crime.”

Jamie, the character who equates to Fred, is unabashedly sympathetic.  It was feelings of outrage at social injustice that propelled both Laura and her play – feelings that only intensified during her research in Newark.  “People forget it’s really tragic this boy ended up in this life.  I think he was one of six and his dad was sent down for armed robbery,” says Laura.  (The armed robbery conviction came in 2001, two years after Fred died).  “I think there’s something really grotesque about passing any judgement on what people deserve because people don’t get dealt equal cards in life. Everyone has choices but some people have fewer choices than others.”

New Perspectives and DerbyLIVE, who are co-producing Wasteland, have attracted a cast of bright young things.  Joe Doherty, who plays Jamie, is a Carlton lad who was in the film Summer. Sophie Ellerby, an ex-Television Workshop student from Bingham, plays his friend Meghan.

A spokesman for New Perspectives described Laura’s work as “a compelling drama from an up-and-coming local writer – one of the best debut scripts we’ve ever seen”.

How would Laura feel if those involved in the Tony Martin case came to see Wasteland?  “I think I would feel fine,” she reflects.  “I hope I’ve written a piece that’s important and relevant to people in the East Midlands’ communities.” 

Is she prepared for the scrutiny her play might come in for, given its controversial subject matter?  “I don’t know… I hadn’t really… I suppose so,” she says.  “But that’s why I feel quite strongly people don’t come along and say, ‘This is what this case was’.  After all, there are only three people who really know what went on that night.”

Read related articles/comment at Nottingham Evening Post

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3 thoughts on “WASTELAND Interview

  1. I’ve just seen the TRUE CRIME special on this case, so I just wanted to add my views.

    Yes, it was tragic that Fred Barras actually died… But I get the feeling that the cult of youth is operating here. Would Ms Lomas have written a play about an elderly man whose house was broken into by two young thugs who then proceeded to torture him to reveal where his money was?

    The idea that Martin should have just let them rummage around downstairs because they wouldn’t come upstairs for him is moonshine. There was NOTHING to steal amid the sea of rubbish downstairs, and Barras and Fearon had come 70 miles just for this job. What were they going to do, say “Oh dear, we appear to have made a loss on this job, but we can’t go upstairs and disturb the nice gentleman, we’d better leave”? NO. These two were out to get something, and without that gun by his side Martin would have been personally attacked.

    People are just shedding tears because Martin was unlucky enough to kill the 16-yr-old (it was an accident, he had no idea whose people were!) Had he shot the older man Brendan Fearon, he’d have got off far more lightly: sad but true.

    Above all, I wish people would stop demanding Martin shed tears for those he attacked. Those demanding that he be a saintly chap (not “complex”) in order to get justice are in my opinion out of line. He was justifiably paranoid because of a traumatic childhood and a couple of previous burglaries, and they SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN IN HIS HOUSE.

    On that night it was HIM or THEM, and he’s not going to be sorry that he was the one who survived.

    • I didn’t see the play, no; I based my response on Lomas’s own comments above, particularly her comments on Martin himself. (On reflection I can see that my comments were somewhat heated, but I still don’t believe Martin got an entirely fair deal from the justice system.)

      This also gives me the chance to correct one fact: Fearon and associates didn’t drive 70 miles to rob Martin, they drove 60 miles. That’s still a 120-mile trip just for a single burglary, and I would be interested to know whether Lomas in her play addressed the issue of what her characters would have done had they found nothing of value downstairs. Gone home? Gone upstairs for a further rummage around? Assaulted the homeowner?

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