Monday, 17 July 2017

Barber Shop Chronicles

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
15th July, 2017, matinee

‘Even in darkness, the barbershop is a lighthouse’.

Barber Shop Chronicles, now playing in Leeds after a successful run in the Dorfman, has one of the best preshows of a play I’ve seen. The in the round seats look onto an array of different barbershop furniture, a sound system and a generator. Surrounding us are shop signs for hairdressers from London to Lagos. Actors meander on to mingle with the widely diverse audience, shaking their hands and one by one waving hello and to the baby(!) in the audience. They dance, invite people on stage for haircuts, laugh at how one of them has picked a bald man for a trim, and sing Happy Birthday to a young boy. This vibe makes it hard not to warm to the characters.

Inua Ellams’ new play takes us inside barbershops in London and five African cities: Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. During the peaceful, almost ceremonious, ritual of a haircut, we become privy to the sharing of jokes and football banter to big thoughts about politics and identity – including divisive opinions on Mandela, the history of the N word, and the apparent corruption of Pidgin by young people learning an Americanised/Anglicised English. Just as significant is the attraction of the barbershop for men to just sit round and listen, joining in when they want. But if this makes the play sound, sporadic and unfocused, simply a play where men sit around talking, this does the play an injustice. Ellams’ play is intricately and solidly structured, and absorbingly told. Settings are interconnected, time and place are played with. Characters might be continents apart and yet jokes, sport and hardships connect them. The London-based Three Kings barbershop is a major setting which we go to back and forth from the different African shops. A football game (Chelsea V Barcelona) also links each setting. We see the barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. There are some fascinating and funny bits about African names, especially about how the name of the former Nigerian president sounds like a sarcastic retort: So you want to save Africa joke? Good luck Jonathan!’

I think Barber Shop Chronicles is as important a play as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, debbie tucker green’s random, or Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. It’s perhaps not as immediately current as some of those plays regarding themes of gang culture or what it’s like to live on an estate. How Ellams writes about identity is complex and wide-ranging, but still focused. Representation is a key interest in the play. Here, Ellams forges a wide cast of characters that are deep, contradictory, from those uncertain about their identity to those who are bold and charismatic. There’s a big nod in the final scene to the lack of racially diverse casting. A male black actor wanting a haircut confides that he’s having doubts about whether he can be cast as a strong, black man. It’s a scene which underlines how Barber Shop Chronicles is a play about people trying to find themselves and connect. This is also epitomised in a major plot strand, that of the growing rift between Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel and Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel, the latter thinking that Emmanuel has betrayed Samuel’s father. In a play full of quasi-paternal bonds, Nri’s sacrifice in order to protect a father-son relationship is shattering.

The play is realised by Bijan Sheibani’s vivacious production. Aline David’s sharp movement and Michael Henry’s music deftly takes us from barber shop to barber shop, London to Africa, with a gusto typical of the play’s energy and the characters’ zest for life. The cast are all excellent so I’ll name check them all. Abdul Salis, Anthony Welsh, Cyril Nri, David Webber, Fisayo Akinade, Hammed Animashaun, Kwami Odoom, Maynard Eziashi, Patrice Naiambana (soon to be playing Davies in The Caretaker in Northampton), Peter Bankolé, Simon Manyonda and Sule Rimi play multiple roles with precision and vigour.

To go off on a tangent, but also to (mis)quote probably Leeds most famous writer, Alan Bennett wrote that theatre is best when it’s like school. I want to add that school was always best when it never seemed like school. Through Ellams play (complete with some cracking one-liners and bits of poetry), Sheibani and the whole cast create something both joyous and which opens up worlds of new perspectives.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29th July. It returns to the National Theatre from 29th November.


Cyril Nri as Emmanuel in Barber Shop Chronicles. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Miss Saigon

Curve, Leicester
12th July 2017

Star-crossed love story, or cautionary tale of exploitation and the disenfranchisement of war? Miss Saigon is both these things. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is complex, sumptuous and doesn’t give its problematic subject matter an easy ride. Now embarking on a nationwide tour, Cameron Mackintosh and director Laurence Connor’s revival is everything I expected and more – a feast for the eyes, mind and heart.

As a big fan of Les Miserables, I couldn’t help but compare the two musicals, and they’ve much in common. Not only the exploration of the indestructible bond between parent and child, the harrows of war and the unflinchingly honest admission that, despite the efforts and trials of mankind, sometimes we fail. But in Schönberg’s rich score, tender wind sections rouse into piercing string orchestrations during the soaring ballads that typify his compositions, while Boublil’s lyrics are admirable in their combination of simplicity and poetic imagery.

As Les Mis tackles themes of redemption, moral duties and social revolution, Miss Saigon does not shy away from political matters and issues of ethical representation. With little prior knowledge of the story, having now seen the show I cannot fathom how producers thought that casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the original production was a good idea. Not only is the character of French-Vietnamese heritage, but his whole motivation and characterisation is built upon feelings of cultural displacement – he relishes the ideals of Western capitalism and has a voracious affinity with the hunger and entitlement that is promoted by his sordid interpretation of the ‘American Dream’.

In an astounding and thought-provoking act of internalised racism the Engineer, in his role as chief pimp, facilitates the Western exoticisation and fetishisation of the East that is central to the story. To have a white actor in this role would just seem wrong and inappropriate, both in regards to political correctness, and in terms of the plot. Thankfully, in the 28 years since the original production attitudes towards representation have progressed. (Caveat: I realise that as a white British woman I am not best situated to comment on the state of race relations and representation within Western culture, and I don’t wish to come across as overly preachy – I’m sure there are many better researched and better written arguments than mine).

The crux of the tragedy rests upon ignorance and the too-true situation wherein one dominant culture takes precedence over another. Kim believes that her marriage is a binding and unbreakable avowal of love, whereas to Chris the ceremony is a beautiful and quaint show of local custom – the trivialisation of tourism rearing its head – a brief respite from the drudgery and strife of war and an antidote to the false, Westernised representation of Vietnamese women in the Engineer’s ‘Dreamland’. Yet he fails to recognise the real meaning of this ‘show’. To coin a phrase, ‘what happens in Saigon stays in Saigon’. Perhaps it is for this reason that my own interpretation of the central romance is not one of true ‘love’, but a heady mixture of lust, Chris’s manifestation of the ‘white saviour complex’, and the paradoxical combination of jadedness and the ‘carpe diem’ sentiment that accompanies war, as well as Kim’s desperation, poverty and naivety in believing that he can provide her with a better life.

Therefore, within a score chock-a-block with pretty love songs, the greatest and most touching of them all is ‘I’d Give My Life For You’, a searingly honest and deeply moving depiction of the ferocious love a mother feels for her son. All of the political, moral and thematic issues and character motivations provide food for thought, which for me is what elevates Miss Saigon above the (unfairly derogatory, imo) label of ‘80’s mega-musical’.

That said, the production is spectacular. One of the slickest musicals I’ve seen, it oozes quality. I have slight reservations about supposed cut-backs for tours, and was concerned that some aspects may be skimped on, but boy was I wrong! The infamous helicopter scene has to be seen to be believed. We were there, fully immersed in the chaotic hysteria, the clawing of the Vietnamese people desperate to escape, the imposing chopper blades beating down on us as well as them. The stage is vastly populated and, with Totie Driver’s set design, creates a scale that feels at once crowded yet intimate and places us directly within the thoroughly believable world of Saigon.

The production is topped off with a huge and unreservedly outstanding cast. Red Concepcion’s Engineer steals every scene with his maniacal performance – all darting eyes, frisky fingers and an energy that drips sleaze. Sooha Kim’s Kim is deceptively sweet as her trillingly dainty voice gives way to a rawness of emotion that seems to tear from her very soul. Also notable, Ryan O’Gorman as John once again displays the unique mixture of soulfulness and humility that made him stand out in the recent RENT tour. His rendition of ‘Bui Doi’ is a rousing opener of Act 2.

Miss Saigon is a must see for theatre lovers. Mackintosh sure knows how to put on a show, and many of the remarkable images have imprinted themselves in my mind. But beneath the spectacle, Boublil and Schönberg have created a mature musical which, while, realistically, not able to provide answers to the world’s problems, illuminates them and allows us to see things from a different perspective. And all this is wrapped up in a luscious package of blissful melodies and exciting set pieces.

Miss Saigon is currently touring the UK and Ireland. For full dates and details visit https://www.miss-saigon.com/uk-ireland-tour/tour-dates

Ashley Gilmour as Chris and Sooha Kim as Kim - Photo Credit Johan Persson