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 and shows how it’s far more than just a place to get one’s head shorn and hair tended. It’s a social space, a place to hang out, chat, rant, charge your phone if you have no electricity at home, and watch Barcelona get slaughtered in the cup final.
If there’s a theme that links these vignettes together, it’s fathers – many of the characters either have absent or violent fathers – but the play is richer and more polyphonous than that.
It’s a play crammed with questions, discussing 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 fattening the wallets of pastors; the western media’s depiction of Lagos; the way that words can be used 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, meanwhile, relishes his role as a peacocking Nigerian debating the merits of bedding black women over white women and Patrice Naiambana, as Simphiwe, a faded old man clutching his beer can, 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. Barber Shop Chronicles is a pleasure to experience. The level of joy in the room is high. 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 its great glowing 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 frames the barber shop as a place of debate.
From the first, second, third and fourth-wall breaking antics that greets 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 says, they go to the barber – and a wider act of celebration.