Touring – reviewed at Curve Leicester
What makes a man? His appearance? His sexual prowess? His ancestry? His football allegiance? Under the amiable guise of shop banter and playful anecdotes Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles ponders some big questions.
It’s a well-known stereotype – the barber shop being a watering hole for African communities; a place where men can gather to showboat, debate and share stories together – but Ellams’ play brims with joie de vivre and effuses a sense of comraderie that reaches out and embraces its audience.
We are welcomed into the barber shop with music, dancing and offers of complementary haircuts from the cast; teenagers took selfies, audience members showed off their signature moves, and everyone was greeted individually with a smile and a warm handshake. It’s a pretty electric atmosphere, and that’s before the play has even begun!
Set within a single day, but spanning continents, Chronicles is both a small scale story of individual friendship and a philosophically and socio-culturally epic anthropology narrative. Despite the brevity of timescale, there’s a strong sense of history running through the play, of generations-old traditions.
The men discuss their families and their upbringing – debating cultural differences regarding corporal discipline; discussing their lives in Africa before emigrating to Britain – and scenes that span continents are linked via shared heritage and bloodlines; an uncle/son/brother spoken of in one scene pops up or is similarly referenced in the next.
Sports, politics, linguistics, sex – no topic is off limits as the men bond even while being stubborn and argumentative. They discuss the metamorphosis of language, mourning the lack of pidgin spoken nowadays, debate the offensive use of the ‘N’ word, and make jokes at the expense of weighty figures such as Nelson Mandela and Goodluck Jonathan.
Yet for these men of numbered ages, that come from varying walks of life, holding disparate political views, they can always find common ground in the barber’s chair. Looking sharp and having the finest haircut is imperative. Whether it be for a job interview, an audition or a new date, the connection between physical appearance, feeling good and personal pride is unashamedly celebrated. However, the message remains that it is really the human bonding experience that boosts this self-confidence within the men. It’s a fascinating exploration of a very specific yet complex social microcosm.
Bijan Sheibani’s production is vibrant and full of motion – hairdressing gowns become dance props and the cast sing geographical lyrics to accompany scene changes. Rae Smith authentically replicates traditional barber shop store front signs, while the industrial-chic steel and neon globe adds a touch of carnival fun. The cast look to be having a blast, playing multiple characters, riffing off each other and fooling around with the audience. Stand outs include Demmy Ladipo’s turn as a wannabe lady’s man – superb and natural comic timing – Rudolphe Mdlongwa as an anglicised and politically liberal youngster, and Anthony Ofoegbu as a stoic veteran barber and sometime father figure to his customers.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a celebration of friendship, tradition and heritage. Ellams skilfully toes the line between sentiment, gaucheness, sincerity and wit while exploring issues of racial, social and gender identity with a keen eye for human foibles, contradictions in logic, and the need for communal beacons of hope – or even simple empathy – in times of crisis, no matter how small.
Barber Shop Chronicles plays at Curve, Leicester until 6thApril.For further tour details please visit: https://fueltheatre.com/projects/barber-shop-chronicles/The cast of Barber Shop Chronicles.
Credit: Tim Trumble