Barber Shop Chronicles
Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse
Royal Exchange Theatre
Barber Shop Chronicles is a joyful, life affirming and intensely thoughtful piece of theatre that manages to raise difficult issues in a meaningful—never tokenistic—way but still be thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Despite being very loosely plotted, it still comes across as tightly written, where every word in the hour and fifty minutes (there's no interval) has had to earn its place.
The various scenes take place in different barbers' shops across Africa, their locations provided in the African chants in the scene transitions and the wooden signs around the theatre's balcony, opening in Lagos where the barber is knocked up at 6 in the morning by someone who has to get to a job interview—followed by scenes in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uganda and more. This opening scene sets the tone for the whole show, which portrays the barber shop as a place of male bonding, of serious and occasionally trivial discussions, including the scenes in Three Kings Barber Shop, serving a black community in London, that provide the thread of plot on which everything else hangs.
Mostly the scenes are linked by theme rather than by story, as men in different countries discuss their relationships with their fathers, discipline of children, football, deterioration of culture and language, politics and women. A lot of this is very funny, but the issues are often serious (perhaps not the hilarious monologue from one about why he prefers white women) and arguments are convincingly offered for views that might not be comfortable to hear, whatever your racial heritage or political position. Nelson Mandela is portrayed as a sell-out by one man who argues that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a waste of time and that Winnie Mandela should have been president. Another proclaims his support of Robert Mugabe and condemns the foreign press for harassing him. People are only shown as heroic or villainous by their actions, not by the views they express (a sort of anti-Twitter).
The linking thread of story in the London shop revolves around the tensions between young barber Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray) and fellow barber Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu) which seem to revolve around the absence of Emmanuel's former business partner, Samuel's father, for which Samuel clearly blames Emmanuel. This all comes to a head with some uncomfortable revelations in the final scene.
Designer Rae Smith utilises the in-the-round space well so that very little is needed to transform the stage to fly us across the world, our exact location indicated by the lit portion on a skeletal globe hanging over our heads. The music to link the scenes together with choreographed movement (movement director Aline David) keeps the celebratory tone set before the play even starts when the cast are getting the audience up on stage to dance to Skepta's "Shutdown"—they also occasionally recognise the presence of the audience during scenes when they can exploit it for comic effect.
Director Bijan Sheibani keeps tight control over the pace throughout to get the most out of a brilliantly written script with an 11-strong cast who can all transform into someone unrecognisable from their previous characters at the drop of a loud shirt (the above mentioned plus Tobi Bantefa, Michael Balogun, Maynard Eziashi, Adé Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Ladipo, Rudolphe Mdlongwa, Elander Moore, Jo Servi and David Webber).
It's a wonderful piece of theatre that can be both joyful and dark; both entertaining and deeply thoughtful about important issues. Snap up the few remaining seats while you can, as this is not a show you will want to miss.