Barber Shop Chronicles
Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
While it's commonly understood that a nail or hairdresser's salon is a place where women the world over will go to chat and catch up, the male equivalent seems to culturally be somewhat more variable. As Barber Shop Chronicles expounds, within the black community, this is still very much the case. It's a place of conversation and meeting, laughs and occasional soul searching. A place open and inviting, something made clear with the cast literally ushering audience members onstage to dance, chat and be tended to by one or other of the barbers.
Opening in such a manner locks into the audience the sense of fun, family and welcoming that the barber's shop represents in the black community. As is stated in the piece, the barber shop is “the pub” for many African men. Not that this is specifically an African story, as there are characters from the Caribbean as well as native Londoners in the mix. But this is very much a story about the lives and experiences of black men and a joyful step into a cultural miasma that many non-black audience members will know solely from watching the early '90s Channel 4 show Desmonds, if at all. But this play spans the globe, in peering into six different barber shops, five in African cities and one in London.
What could be called the central narrative revolves around the London-based shop and a strange resentment between the quiet and secretive proprietor, Emmanuel, and one of his young barbers, Samuel. There's a connection between the two that stretches back a way and isn't immediately apparent. This mystery is teased out through the run-time, as well as through some deftly subtle acting. The brunt of their awkward and strained relationship is an outwardly played encapsulation of many of the myriad stories and vignettes throughout the play. This is a piece that has a lot to say, specifically about the experience of the black male experience.
Blessedly, Inua Ellams's script isn't keen on dwelling on the themes of racism or identity politics that many modern pieces get jammed up in while trying to say something meaningful. Instead, this is a beautiful exploration of the things that connect and separate all of these men as they meet and chat while having their hair cut. The conversations range from work and money to history and heritage and inevitably to women and fatherhood. But nothing is ever judgemental and perspectives are varied in unexpected ways, painting situations in new lights depending on who is telling the story.
The play is set across a single day when Barcelona are playing Chelsea and across the many shops; the men are waiting, discussing and watching or listening to the results. This time framing allows the production to step through the hours of the day. It's a clever device that ties into Rae Smith's evocatively fragmented stage design. A great hanging wire globe illuminates the country where each segment is taking place, as large clocks on the back of stage roll round the hours as each scene changes. In each case, the cast quickly reform the various chairs, tables and stools into the formation for each different shop.
The actors absolutely excel in this production, with a ten-strong cast, it would be easy for characters to get lost in the mix, but each imbues their role with vigour and intensity. Props should definitely also go to Bijan Sheibani for wrangling a production of this scope into a seemingly effortless dance of laughs and fascination.
It's a captivating and enthralling piece of theatre, one that is likely to stand the test of time and be regarded as a landmark production of a new modern classic.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan