Touring – reviewed at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Barber Shop Chronicles, the production by Fuel, the UK National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse at the Lyceum, has a momentum that is impossible to resist. A winning combination of the playful and the profound, it allies serious stagecraft and knowledge to sheer enjoyability.
This is certainly one of those productions where words or photographs can never do justice to the impact of the spectacle. There is a joyous ebullience, a versatile intelligence, and a kinetic energy to Bijan Sheibani’s direction. This, like Rae Smith’s excellent stage design, does justice to Inua Ellams’ writing, which fairly fizzes with ideas.
The portrayals of different barber shops across Africa, linked together by another in Peckham, give voice to various aspects of the African diaspora, and all manner of political, cultural and linguistic issues are touched upon.
The all-male cast, and the suggestion that these barber shops will be something of a boys’ club, might put some off. But while it is undoubtedly a shade testosterone-heavy, the atmosphere does also approach something more like a confessional or a counselling session than a sports club – despite all of the various locations in Lagos, Accra, Kampala or Johannesburg apparently being united by a love of Chelsea FC.
Moreover, while many of the subjects (as would be expected with a play dealing heavily with the effects of colonialism and imperialism) are suitably weighty, there is a lightness of touch to even the most thought-provoking moments.
The magnetism of the show starts before the official curtain-up – it is worth arriving early. Linked by some tremendous physicality – movement director Aline David deserves special praise – the stories impress individually and collectively, while the performances of the twelve-strong cast mesh together wonderfully.
Demmy Ladipo’s expansively comic bad-boy posturing undoubtedly catches the eye, but equally strong are Anthony Ofoegbu’s Emmanuel, the Peckham barber weighed down by cares and Mohammed Mansaray as Samuel, the younger man who resents him.
There is also a wonderful variety to the various roles played by Emmanuel Ighodaro, Okorie Chukwu and Maynard Eziashi, but in truth nobody puts a foot wrong. The dialogue is sparky, considered and funny, occasionally approaching the too-broad but always reining itself back.
Micah Balfour. Pic: Marc Brenner
If there is a drawback, it is that the various situations stand on their own so well that the understandable desire to bring things together by imposing a more traditional plot in the second half of proceedings is unfortunate. This not only leads to connections between the locations that are contrived and unnecessary, it also means that the overarching London plot threatens to topple into soap opera.
However – like the over-emphatic discussion of themes of masculinity already implicit in the dialogue – this is far outweighed by the sincerity and skill of the performances, and by a production honed by touring into as finely-tuned a theatrical machine as you are likely to see.
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Wednesday 23 October – Saturday 9 November 2019
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.
LYT Curtain Raiser: Barber Shop Chronicles
Friday 1 November. 5.30pm.
The Lyceum Youth Theatre with a short performance, created in response to Barber Shop Chronicles. Free. Phone 0131 248 4848 to book.
Talkshow Barber Shop Chronicles: The History, Art and Science of Hair
Monday 4 November, 7pm
Tommy J Curry, Professor of Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is joined by multi-award winning broadcaster Gemma Cairney and writer and podcaster Derek Owusu to share their responses to the themes of the play. Music from Heir of The Cursed.
Tickets and details: Book here.