Touring – reviewed at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Back in 2010, writer and poet Inua Ellams was handed a leaflet about a pilot project which aimed to teach barbers the very basics of counselling. And it was this concept which inspired him to write the completely brilliant Barber Shop Chronicles. Throughout the show, there is a resounding sense that Ellams depicts real African men, the men he actually met during weeks of research travelling through the African continent. And the result is a nuanced tapestry of black male lives and experiences – soulful, heart-warming and generously entertaining.
Celebratory and upbeat; political and confessional, the barber shop chair offers a degree of intimacy. Generations of African men have gathered in barber shops to put the world to rights. A place for banter and social interaction – a place to get your hair cut – but perhaps most importantly, a place to keep in touch with global goings-on.
Barber Shop Chronicles is set in six different barber shops, South London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Harare and Kampala, over the course of one day. Hopping from location to location, it explores the role of the barber shop in these African men’s lives. Perceptive and flying free from political correctness, Ellams’ dialogue is sharp and laugh-out-loud funny.
The play centres around the troubled relationship between Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), the owner of the Three Kings barbershop and Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray), a talented barber and son of Emmanuel’s oldest friend. There’s plenty of subtext going on. Samuel believes his dad was wrongly driven out of the business and his resentment builds against the compassionate Emmanuel builds throughout the duration of the play, revealing climactic revelations for the audience.
Every member of this dynamic cast, many playing more than one role, are utterly memorable. On the night I attended, the spontaneous laughter and standing ovation were a testament to this. Demmy Ladipo was particularly hilarious as Mohammed, telling stories of his latest dalliances, holding the barber shop and the audience with his preacher style delivery. The play raises many questions around male relationships; the importance, meanings and origins of language and dialect; culture versus race; and questions of how you break-down a casting agent’s idea of ‘strong, black masculinity’.
Director Bijan Sheibani stages this spirited production wonderfully. The inclusive and affectionate atmosphere is set from the start – music pounds as audience members are invited to sit (or dance) on stage with the performers. Each change of scene is punctuated by vibrant well-choreographed pieces, chanting and song. Rae Smith’s set aids the audience’s whereabouts – a huge wire globe hangs above the stage, lighting up each different country.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a hugely impressive production. Life-affirming and vivid. Putting lives on stage which have not been seen there before. Go!
Barber Shop Chronicles runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 23 March 2019.
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