Barber Shop Chronicles review at National Theatre, London – ‘rich and exhilarating’
Set in six different cities – Lagos, Kampala, Harare, Johannesburg, Accra and London – Inua Ellams’ latest play for the National Theatre throws opens the doors of the barber shop.
It shows how they’re far more than just a place to get one’s head shorn and hair tended. They are social spaces, places to hang out, chat, rant, and charge your phone, if you have no electricity at home. They’re where you go to watch Barcelona get slaughtered in the cup final.
The play is made up of a series of vignettes and if there’s one theme that knits them all together, it’s fathers – many of the characters either have absent or violent fathers.
That said, Ellams’ play is richer and more polyphonous than that might suggest – it’s crammed with questions, exploring African attitudes to parental discipline in one scene, and the role Nigerian Pidgin plays in cultural identity in the next. Idea follows idea: Christianity as a business primarily designed to fatten the wallets of pastors; the ways in which the western media depicts Lagos; the importance of language and the ways in which words can be used as a tool to debase and destroy. Again and again the plays returns to the theme of black masculinity and the different shapes it can take.
The tone of the play shifts fluidly from comedy to poignancy to rage and the ensemble role-hop with equal agility. The prickly relationship between Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel and Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel, who work together in the Three Kings barber shop in London, is the thread that connects these narrative fragments. Nri patiently puts up with the younger man’s aggression; he puts up with a lot of things. While both are superb, Nri delivers a performance of containment and grace among other showier turns.
Hammed Animashaun relishes his role as a peacocking Nigerian debating the merits of bedding black women over white women. Patrice Naiambana, as Simphiwe, a faded old man clutching his beer can, his shoulders loaded with regret, delivers a particularly wrenching and difficult speech about the anger he still feels at Mandela for not seeking retribution for centuries of suffering.
This is all handled with skill and a huge amount of warmth. If it wasn’t already clear, Barber Shop Chronicles is an absolute pleasure to experience. The level of joy in the room is considerable.
Bijan Sheibani’s production plays out in-the-round and features some of the liveliest between-scene dance sequence around, courtesy of choreographer Aline David. Rae Smith’s set, with its colourful barber shop signage and glowing overhead globe, allows for seamless shifts between location while also creating room for the actors to cut loose.
While a couple of the characters feel more like ideas than people, this is never jarring because Ellams has already established the idea of the barber shop as a place of debate.
From the first, second, third and fourth-wall breaking antics that greet you as you enter to the final room-shaking dance sequence, this is both a fascinating peek into a world of men – Africans don’t go to the pub, says one character, they go to the barber instead – and a larger act of celebration.