Writer: Inua Ellams
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Designer: Rae Smith
Reviewer: Charlotte Broadbent
Inua Ellams was inspired to write Barber Shop Chronicles after being handed a flyer in 2010 which detailed a pilot project aiming to teach barbers the rudiments of counselling. He went on to consider the cultural and historical significance of the local barbershop. Whether it be in south London or South Africa the need for “a place where men can be men”, where the door is open long before and after the business hours. Where men philosophise, banter, quarrel and celebrate their cultural past and present.
Set in barber shops in London, Lagos, Harare and other countries in Africa, indicated on a skeletal globe which rotates and illuminates from above, Ellams examines facets of contemporary African culture across oceans. The jokes that are handed down, and are told in many of the barber shops in the play. The historical and internationally unifying power of Chelsea football club, the archetypal father figure and where that leaves a new generation of “Strong Black Males”. What has been produced is a stunning portrayal of a community in its most intimate and sincere form. So profoundly influenced by the continuing discussion of how best to nurture the mental health of so many who fear perceptions of weakness, Barber Shop Chronicles demonstrates how the simplest conversations often prove to be the most vital.
With the ease that can only be achieved from attentive listening Ellams orchestrates the universes that are covered in a few hours conversation. Moving effortlessly from recent political history to family life, making the audience see how rich the tapestry is and how one element steadily affects another. Ellams has captured the lightning in the bottle, condensing such weighty and profound issues next to the utterly commonplace.
Throughout, the play is beautifully punctuated with African choral songs. The show opens with the cast gradually entering the space, inviting the audience on stage for selfies, a trim and a dance as they move through a soundtrack of modern music, from Blackstreet to The Sugar Hill Gang. The audience arrives at a party, how often does a show begin with a raucous round of applause?
The ensemble works together flawlessly. Many actors multi-role and are able to demonstrate an impressive range over the course of the play. The actors watch from the sides in the scenes they don’t appear in, reinforcing the communal aspect of the play. Demmy Ladipo is gifted with a particularly humorous monologue which he delivers with relish.
Barber Shop Chronicles is one of the most important new plays of recent times adding to the zeitgeist and inviting further conversation. An electric night of theatre.
Reviewed on 22nd May. Touring Nationwide | Image: Marc Brenner