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.

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