Writer: Inua Ellams
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
We incessantly talk to three people; the barman, perhaps a priest, but always your barber. From the outset, there’s catalytic energy bouncing around, flinging us from Africa to the barbers of Catford, Lewisham or Brixton in a showcase of sensational world-building. Poetic in construct, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles is the height of sublime subtlety, relying on bold, poignant honesty, rather than false-bound spectacle or hollow pathos.
Storytelling through a diverse culture, these barbers are the councillors for generations, providing more than styles and smiles. A chronicle of various encounters, there’s a connection between these men – stretching beyond familial. Yes, cousins may depart, brothers return, but across the globe, they share the same stories; life, death, women, racism and grow from one another, learn from their elders in a way we recognise, but may not have experienced.
Respect for elders laces throughout, with the fleeting moments of aggression resulting from this disrespect or personal grief. This leads to bickers, altercations and a resulting strain between Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray) and Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), one of three men to originally open the South London barbers. Ofoegbu has a subdued role, impacting with his infectious smiles, language and relationship with the others. With his father in prison, Samuel takes on the family role, but with resentment towards Emmanuel, blaming his cowardice. It’s a change, as culture alters for black men, where some fathers will no longer talk with their fists, but father-figures, and indeed mothers, will listen.
Ramshackle, yet alluring, Rae Smith’s decision to incorporate signs we see in our peripherals, but never pay much attention too, framing them around the set creates a story-narrative to a culture many Lyceum watchers will be unfamiliar with. An intense centrepiece, a globe, sculpted from trash metals, hangs above as we transition from the UK and back. Such stagecraft is known, that as the choreography begins, as the set shifts, you’re left utterly mesmerised, with a determinable instinct to soak it all in.
Despite the pretence, this is anything but a simple piece on masculinity, or indeed it’s toxic form. This is a delicate, dissection of masculinity, but not the focus. The expectations, from cultural to age-related, even to the altering idolisation of Mugabe, Malcolm or Luthor, touching on the masculine ‘norms’ of black youths growing up in South London. Seldom does a production capture it’s culture this firmly yet openly reveals itself – welcoming anyone. There is little anger, but where it flares, like Tom Moutchi’s volleys of vindication, it doesn’t tarnish the production, merely re-affirming its attitude towards life.
Upon entering the theatre, one has expectations to sit, enjoy, perhaps experience an eye-opening commentary, or even a hint of social satire which they will quickly forget. Barber Shop Chronicles obliges all of this and plenty of rhythm. A lyrical weave allows these men to blend cultural dance with modern movement, struck to the beats of Pidgin, Chadic and a variety of dialects. Entirely, the cast is fluid, emitting a slickness as they sway, with Demmy Ladipo’s comedic flailing and Elmi Rashid Elmi’s tight pops stand out.
This is accessible theatre, Ellams’ writing may focus on the culture of black men, particularly those councillors offering a close shave, but in truth, it couldn’t care less who you are. It wants to speak to you, to encourage movement and song with a magnificent sound score. It desires us to open dialogue with one another. Barber Shop Chronicles injects the Autumn streets of Edinburgh with a much needed thrust of blood, bold passion and representation.
Runs until 9 November 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner