Set in six different cities – Lagos, Kampala, Harare, Johannesburg, Accra and London – Inua Ellams’ joyous, continent-hopping play throws opens the doors of the barber shop and invites the audience in.
As Ellams’ play makes clear, the barber shop is more than just a place to go and get one’s head shorn and hair tended. They are social spaces, places to hang out, chat and rant. They’re where you go to charge your phone if you have no electricity at home. They’re where you go to watch Barcelona get slaughtered in the cup final.
Barber Shop Chronicles is made up of a series of vignettes connected by a central thread. It’s a play about black masculinity and fatherhood – many of the characters either have absent or violent fathers – but it’s more polyphonous than that might suggest. It’s a play crammed with questions. Ellams explores African attitudes to parental discipline in one scene, and in the next he discusses the role Nigerian Pidgin plays in cultural identity.
Christianity is depicted as a business – a way of fattening the wallets of pastors. The play also examines the ways in which the western media depicts Lagos.
The tone of the play shifts fluidly. It’s a comedy one moment, a play of poignancy and rage the next. The ensemble cast 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 particularly well drawn. Nri patiently puts up with the younger man’s aggression; he puts up with a lot of things. While both actors are superb, Nri delivers a performance of containment and grace.
Hammed Animashaun relishes his role as a peacocking Nigerian extolling 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. It’s incredibly powerful.
This is all handled with skill and a huge amount of warmth. Barber Shop Chronicles is an absolute pleasure to experience. The level of joy in the room is immense. Bijan Sheibani’s production, which plays out in-the-round, 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 locations while also creating room for the actors to cut loose.
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 shop instead – and a larger act of celebration.