Barber Shop Chronicles
Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse
Inua Ellams is an African poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer whose recent play Barber Shop Chronicles has now arrived in Sheffield after performances at the National Theatre and other London and National venues.
A barber’s shop is a place where men go to talk to men as Ellams discovered when he visited barber shops in London and several African cities when researching material for his play.
The action of the play is a rich evocation of African life at home and in the diaspora, with short scenes bound together with musical episodes accompanied by movement and dance. The production is stylistically reminiscent of Brecht.
On the open stage of the Crucible, the ubiquitous barber shop is backed by scaffolding with trailing electrical cables strung from telegraph poles and a rotating overhead globe. However Spartan the exterior setting, the barber shop is a haven of warmth and companionship where the barber’s chair adopts the function of a confessional or a psychiatrist’s couch.
The play opens with a young man desperately hammering on the door of shop long before opening hours. He has an audition to attend and must have his hair cut to look presentable. The reluctant barber rouses himself from sleep on the mattress on the floor, calms the young man down and refuses to accept payment, an act of kindness repeated elsewhere.
But just as important as the barber’s confessional role is the sense of community and opportunity for sharing interests and concerns that the shops provide. Later scenes take place in Peckham, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra where the groups gathered speak of local political issues as well as expressing personal opinions and wild enthusiasm for an ongoing international football match.
Common themes arise in the different settings, the universals in relationships of people separated from their traditional culture. A young father seeks advice about parenting and how to discipline children. Members of the group recall beatings they had from their fathers and whether or not they benefitted from them. In a different context an argument breaks out about Pidgin English. Was it something to be celebrated or a sign of deterioration of the language?
There is little reference to women except a lively discussion prompted by one customer who explains why he prefers white women to black, and a strong denunciation of Nelson Mandela by a South African customer who thinks Winnie would have made a better president.
The cast of actors is bounding with energy and enthusiasm, particularly evident in the linking musical episodes which range from rap to traditional song and dance music to more contemporary pieces. Under Bijan Sheibani’s direction the action moves swiftly, characterisation is convincing, contrasts in volume and tone are effective and the choreography dynamic and exciting.
An enthusiastic audience of supporters including an enhanced number from the local Afro-Carribean community welcomed the production to Sheffield. This is indeed a ‘life-affirming’ experience which presents an honest and informative account of a way of life unfamiliar to many in the audience.