Barber Shop Chronicles – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Inua Ellams

Director: Bijan Sheibani

Reviewer: John Kennedy

This heart and soul hug from a 100% proof rum-soaked octopus, is a pan-African celebratory safari of the human condition. The episodic chronicles, bookended with a capella tribal chants rendered in location-context local dialects, are a seductive, ear-stalking delight.

These barbers’ shops monopolise the community-chest treasury of folly, frailty and home-spun philosophies doled-out for the princely price of a peacock, snipped-prim edge-up/hi/lo fade. Topics are as wide as African skies shared amongst the old and young, delivered with kick-ass sass, consummate timing and conviction. One unifying narrative thread is their primal loyalty to Chelsea playing against Barcelona – Manchester who? More apposite, the young Ethan, Elmi Rashid Elmi, asks, Emmanuel,‘ What is this about being a strong, black man meant to be when it isn’t about being what I to be?’

Coiffure-kitsch word-play punctuates the machine-gun punching patois from this all male, black ensemble. Their fever-pitch, ironic delivery of stylised A-Z jungle rumble and mega-city blokey-banter soon bamboozles the teenage audience cohort into appreciating that this evening’s 105 minutes of mobile-phone purdah denial is so like, decidedly cool.

Some characters, zoot-suited with pimped-up shades, local-boys now self-made, uber-dude cool, are back home from London to suckle homesick soul-food from the Motherland’s breast. A near infinite, eclectic palette of complementary characters explodes with delicious, declamatory light and shade humanity.

This is a haircut 100% homage to The Canterbury Tales – so generously, gregariously inclusive that the audience are invited on stage for a pre-show swift trim, scratch-mix on the decks or even a break-dance selfie. The ASM is near having kittens. Designer Rae Smith’s superb spaghetti-strewn cabled telegraph poles and vintage enamel advertising signs evoke a convincing, shanty-town vibrancy. Across the continent in village, city or diaspora London, topics range from parental discipline, the equivocal financial probity of marrying a white wife (no dowry!) – or the ubiquity of the viral joke, ‘There were these three stereotypes having a drink in the pub when…’

Characters heatedly exchange views on the legitimacy and relevance of pidgin English in post-colonial West Africa. Is its innovative immediacy an essential cross-border lingua-franca passport or just a mongrel ingratiation suffocating the myriad regional/tribal dialects? Their jury remains out on that one. The self-imposed, guilt embargo avoidance of the ’N’ word gets short shrift. The cultural re-appropriation and ambiguous toxicity of ‘nigger/nigga’, deconstructed by the young brought-up in the Hip Hop/Agit-Rap cultures, is both exposed and dissected. The essential premise to the effect that -‘It all depends on who’s saying it where and when and why: context is everything – it’s our word now, we’ll use it how we want!’ For their elders it chimes less convincingly with the still raw experiences of crushing, ‘Kaffir’ South African apartheid. The recent death of Robert Mugabe, though not explicitly referenced, lends an electrifying dynamic as his legacy becomes the subject of impassioned factionalism.

Few will deny Demmy Ladipo’s heart-mugging, incandescent ego-riotous indulgence with his characterisations of fly-boy Wallace and the subsequent audience pimping-maestro ‘Bad Boy’. No less, credit for empathic mastery is owed to Anthony Ofuegbu as modest barber-shop proprietor, Emmanuel. His modest, dignified pathos belies a simmering secret that will ultimately see his young nephew, Samuel, played with contained ferocity by Mohammed Mansaray, achieve cathartic acceptance about his incarcerated father.

Wise, wry and suffused in witty, heart-warming distracting narrative guile, this razor-sharp exemplary gifted cast indisputably prove Barber Shop Chronicles is a cut above the rest.

Orphans from the Motherland find the barbers’ shops an essential, machismo defusing, hirsute-centric lighthouse. Intimate, revelatory, perfidiously humane – and damn handy having the-only-generator-in-village to re-charge your ‘phone – playwright, Inua Ellams has got your number and knows just how to press all the right buttons.

Runs Until 28 September 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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