The scene is set from the moment audience members step into the theatre and are invited to join the cast on stage. The stately, glistening Lyceum auditorium is full of music and laughter, dancing and clapping, blurring the line between actor and audience. The cast weave their way through the seats, greeting people like old friends and bringing them to have their hair ‘cut’ on stage.
Immediately, we understand that the six barber shops this anthology play is set within are not places with a hard line between server and served. From Accra to Lagos, Kampala to Harare, Johannesburg to London, the shops function as a mix of psychologist’s couch, political meeting place and convivial pub, where sometimes you get your hair cut. As each vignette plays out, non-involved members of the cast sit around the edge of the stage, attentively observing and occasionally engaging with the goings on, drawing the audience ever closer.
The story that is returned to throughout Barber Shop Chronicles is a touching thread involving Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu) and his employee Sam (Mohammed Mansaray) coming to terms with their shared past in London. Around this narrative, the rest of the play lets us hear snatches of story and glimpse lives across Africa, exploring a variety of interconnected themes along the way.
These are as diverse and varied as the cities in which they are discussed. Sometimes the topics are relatively light and humorous, but often they are challenging and complex. However, whether it’s the future and history of Africa, racism or the vulnerability of youth, one of the delights of this play is the nuanced manner with which such issues are always treated.
Happily, the whole production is so light on its feet and full of humour that these thoughtfully treated serious subjects never obscure the fact this play is a lot of fun. The visual and verbal gags come thick and fast, and the audience roars with laughter as much as it pauses for thought. A party atmosphere is conjured through thumping hip-hop, which frequently blends with soulful a capella singing. This mixture – sometimes contrasting, sometimes complimentary, is just one way in which Barber Shop Chronicles illustrates the complex and interweaving nature of the identities on show.
The masculine identity and what defines a man – particularly in the context of African and black British cultures – is frequently questioned. The play queries how fathers interact with their sons, where the line is between discipline and abuse and how vulnerable men can be. Embodying this is would-be actor Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi), facing up to stereotyped casting and one-dimensional ideas about what it means to be ‘strong’.
Regular mentions of Ethan throughout the play illustrate how the shops themselves are linked by people – mutual friends and relations travelling through Africa and to Britain who are mentioned in passing. These links are mirrored by the tangles of telephone wires roofing the stage, by a poster of a BMW that crops up again and again, by a globe suspended above the stage gradually coming alive with light. The play’s message that we are all part of a diverse but interconnected whole is not subtle, but it is seemingly one that we need reminding of, and there are few better ways to do so at the moment than Barber Shop Chronicles.
- By Inua Ellams
- Directed by Bijan Sheibani
- A Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse co-production
- Cast includes: Micah Balfour, Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adé Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Ladipo, Mohammed Mansaray, Tom Moutchi, Anthony Ofoegbu, Elmi Rashid Elmi, Eric Shango, David Webber
- Royal Lyceum Theatre
- Until 9 November 2019