Thursday 13th July 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Written by Inua Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles (a co-production of West Yorkshire Playhouse, the National Theatre and Fuel) is a rare kind of production; one which explores uncovered ground, exposes unseen environments with insight and offers something genuinely fresh and compelling. Covering the intertwined lives of African men in barber shops in London, Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg, Kampala and Harare, it’s a show which explores the role of the barber shop chair in the daily lives of men and the singular nature of the conversations and confidences inspired by the setting. It’s also a production inspired by the stigma of mental health which explores notions of masculinity, and particularly African masculinity, through plenty of wit – but also great warmth and poignancy as young men seek to find role models and carve a path for themselves in the shadow or absence of their fathers.
Notably, Barber Shop Chronicles covers great socio-historic ground while maintaining a thoroughly engaging energy through the vibrant, wise and sometimes naïve characters. Touching on subjects such as Nigerian Pidgin, migration, and the way the two are deeply intertwined with identity, Ellams’ carefully crafted authentic dialogue makes the subjects vitally accessible. Barber Shop Chronicles impressed me because within a premise which appears relatively simple, it educates through the exchanges between characters without ever lecturing, and entertains without short-changing the cultures and subjects rarely given such a platform. I love to see theatre which shows me lives, worlds and cultures with insight and credibility; particularly when it gives a platform to untold stories, and Barber Shop Chronicles does exactly that. There’s certainly joy and vibrancy as billed, yet there is also conflict and frustration which serves to make this a production that is both uplifting and eye opening. Also impressive are the musical segues between the snatches of characters’ stories. They are short but beautiful and well placed, with the snippets of impassioned, fun-loving dance and fast-paced spinning of the many set pieces serving to spotlight the liveliness and charm of the environments.
It’s nigh on impossible to comment on the most impressive performances in this ensemble piece without going through the entire cast, and if that’s not an indication of the quality of the performances and casting in this production, I don’t know what is. Perhaps most noteworthy though are Fisayo Akina, playing Samuel, and Cyril Nri, playing Emmanuel; their portrayal of the frictions and hurt between their respective characters provides much of the dramatic tension in this production, and their journey from frustration to acceptance gives Barber Shop Chronicles welcome further depth beside the many other enlightening tales told. Nri also provides great gravitas in his performance as the man of integrity doing what he can to support others. Hammed Animashaun, playing multiple varied roles, stands out for his passion and his rage as well as his charming playfulness and anxiety across characters. But the cast as a whole are a delight, and their chemistry and ease with each other shines through, complimenting the enveloping choice of staging (it’s performed in the round) and creating an altogether warm and welcoming environment where the audience are a part of the setting and the confidences.
Barber Shop Chronicles is beautifully layered; touching on marginalised subjects and looking at various relationship dynamics in a production that is full of life and laughter. This is no loose adaptation of a classic tale or a poorly veiled attempt to re-vamp existing plays – this is something wonderfully and appetisingly new and I’d like to see much more of shows like this in the future. It is undoubtedly an important piece of contemporary theatre which explores the relatable subjects of relationships and identity while introducing an insight into worlds previously unseen, and you absolutely must see it if you can. Be sure to get a programme, too – it’s packed with interesting insights and context for the production.
The Barber Shop Chronicles runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from the 12th to the 29th July and you can get your tickets here.