Barber Shop Chronicles

Inua Ellams
National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse
Roundhouse
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It turns out the barber's is far more than a place for getting your hair cut. “The barber shop is a lighthouse for the community”; a space to laugh, moan, gossip and discuss some of the biggest issues in society. In this electric new play which takes place across six cities in a single day, Inua Ellams presents a snapshot of the experience of black men across the world, the cultures which divide them and ultimately the experiences which unite them.

After two sell-out runs at the National Theatre in 2017 and a world tour, Barber Shop Chronicles has returned for the summer to Camden’s Roundhouse, adapted for the in-the-round space. The strong ensemble, made up of original cast members and new faces, deliver a high-energy performance, with stand-out performances from Mohammed Mansaray as the angry and rebellious young Samuel and Demmy Ladipo as the humorous ‘Mr Lover Lover” Wallace.

Even before the play begins, the audience are drawn in to the carnivalesque atmosphere through a relaxed preset, which feels more like attending a gig than a play. Bijan Sheibani’s slick direction moves us around the world from one barber shop to the next, with the aid of a suspended rotating globe-come-discoball. These transitions are the heartbeat of the play, punctuated with episodes of hip hop and dance which bring all the characters together (and at times the audience too).

Ellam’s collection of barber shop exchanges is the product of six weeks of research travelling across Africa and as a result the lines ring with the charm of authenticity. We play witness to the conversations of African men in barber shops in London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. Taking in big questions on modern politics and racial equality, to discussions on parenting and football, their chatter is not only an insight into the African male community, but a striking reflection on our times. Although generational and cultural difference divides the men on issues such as homosexuality and interracial relationships, their stories have a lot in common. They are carefully interwoven and, in some cases, cleverly linked.

Ellam's original concept for a poetry and graphic art project was inspired by a real-life initiative to tackle rising rates of suicide in black men by training barbers in the art of counselling. But these barbers need no training. From a grieving husband to abandoned sons struggling to find male role models, the play does not shy away from the topic of mental health. At its heart, there is a common narrative of abandonment as all the characters attempt to process the stresses of racism, migration and the hangover of colonialism. As Emmanuel, the owner of the Peckham Three Kings barber shop, observes: “we are all orphans here”.

Language is one of the biggest shackles. Paradoxically, English is seen as both a symbol of oppression and a tool of expression as their common language. The power of language is clear in the characters’ attempts to reclaim their cultural heritage through the revival of pidgin, and to shake off the negative connotations of the ‘n’ word.

Ultimately, though, conversation seems to be the greatest healer in this talking shop. And like the young customer who asks to come back to “listen and learn”, the audience will find themselves leaving the barber shop entertained and uplifted.

Reviewer: Hollie Goodall