Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
Theatre is tackling a constant diversity issue, a key component being how to attract an audience that rarely feels the theatre is open to them. Barber Shop Chronicles is the kind of work that should open some doors, a work inclusive to all but speaking loudly to a community rarely given a focus in mainstream theatre. Above that though, and surely the key to every change is that the work is truly excellent, the resources of the National Theatre and Fuel blending together to produce theatre of the first rank.
Inua Ellams, whose previous work An Evening With An Immigrant, seen at Tobacco Factory Theatres, promised much, has surpassed himself here, with a work that flies, barbershop to barbershop from Lagos, Johannesburg, and Accra to Kampala and South London. Each shop may be separated by oceans and across continents, but the conversation doesn’t change in language and culture; of jobs and women, sons coming to terms with the legacies of fathers, an older generation schooling a younger one in respect. All the while an important Barcelona vs Chelsea Champions League game plays on the TV.
Ellams apparently recorded over 60 hours of conversation to help shape his play and it shows. The work has that patter of speech as it’s spoken, not as it’s shaped, and the terrific ensemble all give colour and texture to its rhythm. Whether it is debating the merits of pidgin language in the form of protest or discussing Luis Suarez penchant for biting opponents, it all feels very true, demonstrated by a whoop that escaped from the stalls when one character describes whether it’s best to date a white women or black women when you’re in a dead end job.
Bijan Shibani’s production plays at a ferocious pace, the world of the barber moving at a different rate than the 9-to-5 grind, with scissors flashing and clippers being deployed for every dandy, chancer or playa who walks in. It appears that wherever you are in the world, a sharp sartorial style and a freshen up provides a leg up in the world.
What narrative there is revolves around the untold familial and business tensions that simmer in the London barbers which eventually results in a cracking climatic scene where roosters come home to roost. Yet the work isn’t really about that narrative tale, however, interesting the telling of it. Instead, it’s about how barber shops shape a generation of men who may go in for a trim but come out with a perspective. ‘They’re like our pub’ as one client says and in a culture that has lost much of that community shaping with the closure of many a local, it’s fascinating to see how businesses and a mingling of generations can enrich and shape each other.
It’s twelve-strong ensemble are all terrific and break out some thrilling dance moves to the likes of Stormzy, but it’s Anthony Ofoegbu who most takes the plaudits, as the barber who turns active listening into an art form and who later reveals a steely inner core. The play’s position is to ask what is a strong black man today? The answer may start with your local barber.
Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the Bristol Old Vic until the 18 May