Pros: The diversity of the audience, as so rarely are mainstream theatre productions able to merge different cultures from the North and South of the Equator so effortlessly.
Cons: Due to the size of the stage, I couldn’t properly hear the non-amplified voices.
I can hardly recall any show able to keep me on my seat for two straight hours without my attention eventually drifting off, but Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre is definitely at the top of the list. The engaging writing style intertwines different topics, elaborates on social issues, and humorously debunks some of the most widespread clichés about sub-Saharan African civilisations.
The play takes us on a journey from London and across Africa, with separate vignettes set in local barber shops. The square set, with audience sat on each side, recreates the interiors of the barber shops, with price lists or look-book signs, wheelie carts and revolving chairs. Suspended overhead in the middle of the auditorium is a rotating globe made of metal wire, which glows in the dark.
‘The barber shop is a beacon for the community,’ says one of the many characters in the play, and its essential role within the African society is compared to that of a pub in Britain. Inside the barber shop people meet to socialise, watch football, discuss socio-political matters and exchange good or bad news. The barber shop’s door is always open, and its owner is a fatherly figure who is expected to listen, share experiences and offer advice.
From Peckham to Johannesburg, we’re welcomed into salons in Accra, Lagos, Kampala and Harare, where we assist to multiple conversations and life events. Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams puts a lot on the plate but the performance never feels heavy. The childhood scars of an authoritarian father or a broken family are brought back with humour, whilst we witness its backlash in the present. Africa’s linguistic heritage and the use of Pidgin are defended against the cultural contamination coming from the English-speaking world. Racially offensive words are explained and their users mocked, and there is a funny discussion about the differences between choosing a white or a black spouse. Christianity is described as ‘the biggest business in Africa’ and military dictatorships are blamed for causing a carnage of civilians. Jokes are made about the Africans’ renowned poor timekeeping, and the lack of technological progress is considered in the light of its perks.
Hot topics are approached with a playful tone by a fresh and charismatic cast that delivers excellent performances and a polished characterisation of multiple roles. Patrice Naiambana regales the audience with some of the best comedic highlights, whereas Cyril Nri’s impersonation of the older barber Emmanuel is intense and heart-warming. Despite its light-hearted shell, Barber Shop Chronicles encompasses many thought-provoking ideas and director Bijan Sheibani’s spaced-out tempo allows enough time for the words to sink in. Loud Afrobeat tunes and softer a cappella interludes give breath to this exceptionally long one-act piece, adding colour and depth to the well-structured script. Between scenes, the twelve-strong cast scrambles around hectically before falling into place like in a jigsaw puzzle. Alina Davis’ ensemble choreographies accompany the music and engage the audience, who visibly struggles to sit still.
By the end of the play, there is a certain familiarity with the characters who, all along, have given out many details from the past. Invited to join them in the barber shop, we’re happy to take a sit and wait for our turn to get a haircut, confident we’ll be satisfied.
Author: Inua Ellams
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Producer: National Theatre, Fuel and West Yorkshire Playhouse
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking Link: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/barber-shop-chronicles/whats-on
Booking Until: 8 July 2017