National Theatre, London – until 18 July 2017
“Men, sometimes…I don’t know.”
The hugely convivial pre-show entertainment for Barber Shop Chronicles is such good fun that I thought to myself I could easily just watch this for an hour. As it turned out, press night delays meant that it was extended by about thirty minutes, during which you really got to appreciate how quietly radical it is. In designer Rae Smith‘s hands, the Dorfman has been transformed into a barbershop in the round, into which we’re volubly greeted by the cast and if you’re lucky, you get to sit in the barber’s chair and “get your hair popped” while you wait for the show to start. What I really loved though was the way in which the company so enthusiastically greeted friends, family, loved ones, shattering conventions and fourth walls alike, setting the tone for a truly joyous experience.
Crafted by Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles puts black masculinity in all its multiplicities under the spotlight. by examining the crucial role that barber shop plays in their communities. From Peckham to Lagos, Johannesburg to Accra with Harare and Kampala inbetween, we’re treated to a glimpse into a world that is more, so much more, than just a place to get an “aerodynamic” haircut. It’s a place to find chat, companionship, chargers, to confess to deeper truths than might otherwise be acknowledged in the outside world, even to find surrogate father figures and positive male role models. Across these six countries, we eavesdrop on these conversations and in gaining an appreciation for the diversity in the African diaspora, Ellams also traces the common threads.
Bijan Sheibani directs the play with a delicious sense of warmth, scenes are connected with the best musical interludes you could hope to see this year as Aline David’s movement unites the company to expressive and energetic effect. And in a free-wheeling ensemble, every actor gets his moment to shine in the roll call of some thirty characters. The enmity between Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel and Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel – the latter having taken over the Peckham salon owned by the former’s father whilst he’s currently residing at her Majesty’s pleasure – provides a powerful continuing story strand; Hammed Animashaun and Patrice Naiambana (“Look at my neck!”) provide some particularly gloriously comic moments, and I loved Simon Manyonda’s would-be intellectual posturing too.
And for all the joy and entertainment that plays out under the light of the fibre-optic cables and twinkling globe, Ellams hits on deeply serious notes, the vicious cycle of troubled legacies – whether personal (those fathers again) or political (Mugabe to Mandela) – feeding into mental health issues -disproportionately prevalent among black men – and round again and again. That said, he also doesn’t let us forget that the barber shop is akin to the black man’s pub and as last orders are called, the curtain call becomes a riotous moment of celebration. No matter what you think of what is happening in the Olivier at the moment, this is a National Theatre nailing its brief for once.