Inua Ellams returns this summer to the National theatre with his third play, Barber Shop Chronicles a co-production with Fuel & West Yorkshire Playhouse, following the well-received plays The 14th Tale and Black T-shirt Collection.

The powerfully positive new play will take audiences from a barber shop in London to five other cities within the African diaspora. Showing how the barber shop brings men together forming bonds and brotherhood through conversation in the barber chair.

It was great to see that the actor, writer and director Cyril Nri was part of the ensemble alongside Maynard Eziashi, Fiyaso Akin, Anthony Welsh and the other seven actors who make up the cast. Cyril has had a long-standing career and though many will know him as superintendent Adam Okaro from ITV series The Bill, he has had acted in shows such as Law and Order UK and Holby City to name a few as well as many on-stage roles.

TBB caught up with Cyril to discuss his role in this groundbreaking play…

1# Tell us about your character. How did you bring the character to life?

My character Emmanuel is a man of quiet discipline. He is a barber-cum-therapist but as the old saying goes “physician heal thyself”. Whilst he is good at listening to, and looking out for others he keeps his own secrets and suffers silently.
Somewhere in the script someone says of him he used to be “the muscle” so I reckoned he is quietly a very fit man. I started trying to go to the gym every day during the rehearsal period as a physicalisation of his discipline. Needless to say I’m not that disciplined; halfway through this rehearsal period I haven’t seen the gym for three days.

Another way I tried to bring him to life was an attempt to remain silent and keep my counsel like a really good listener. Here again I’m not sure I’m as disciplined as Emmanuel is and I hear myself giving my opinion and have to stop half sentence and say “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said, by me, right now?” If the answer to any one of those questions is “No”, then I try to be more Emmanuel like and keep silent and listen unless absolutely necessary.  I also spend a fair amount of time in the Barbershop where Inua (playwright) researched my character, as I get my haircut by one of the Barbers that he based part of the character on.

2# What attracted you to this role?

Black barbershops worldwide are places where black men (often proscribed in the outside world) are free to be themselves and laugh, listen, share, teach, and care for each other. It is a place where from the earliest age, young black boys get to see and listen to grown men taking care of themselves. We did many workshops over the last year as Inua worked on the play and we all had such fun as a group of black male actors getting the chance to explore the black male and our relation to each other and the world.

3# What can audiences expect from this production?

An exploration of what it is to be yourself, your husband, your son, your lover, your friend from the unfiltered point of view of those men. With music, jokes, heat, violence and love.

4# In this play the audience is transported between 6 cities; London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra how are the conversations explored in each place? 

Each city is different and clearly the socio-economic, life pressures on the citizens of each place shine through in their separate locations, but what they all share is a place where men can come and be themselves and take the weight off the pressure cooker. The different locations are all linked through customers and/or barber(s) that have a relation or friend that has a connection with the London Barbershop.

5# How realistic is this performance to your visits to the Barbershop? Do you get involved in the conversations they have?

It’s a play, so it probably has a couple more highlights of visits to the barbers than would normally happen in an hour and a half, but it’s very realistic and true to my barbershop experience, indeed the London shop is partially based on the barbershop where I get my haircut.

Barber Shop Chronicles rehearsing at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner

6# There is quite a large cast, is every role a lead role? If not which characters take centre stage and in what ways do the other characters support them?

It an ensemble piece and each role is pivotal to the next.

7# You have worked extensively in both television and theatre which platform do you prefer and why?

I get to play lots of different people and reflect the human condition what a privilege. To be a griot, storyteller and to help pass on our cultures to audiences eager for catharsis it would seem churlish to quibble about the platform. However, live work of theatre is always electric as there is a direct connection with each and every member of your audience.  However, TV or screen work in general allows one to perfect a storytelling and to reach millions in one fell swoop. I love both mediums.

8# Inua Illams’ productions always seem to have an aspect of politics and experiences of those from the African Diaspora. His first play Black-T-Shirt Collection is a perfect example of this where he tells the story of brotherhood and a need to belong. How important is it for plays like this that explore these themes?

As Skunk Anansie sang “Yes it’s F***ing political. Everything’s political.” Inua is of the African Diaspora so naturally and wisely he writes from that perspective. Pinter or Shakespeare is significant to the whole world and one’s understanding of the human condition whether you are born in Surulere or Sidcup, the same is true of Inua’s work. If a play doesn’t have politics (large or small), argument and emotion that one can relate to in one’s own life then it is probably not a very good play.

9# What is the most important message people will take away from this production?

Come see the play and find your own message. The message I come away with might not be the one you do. But I can assure you, you will come away with joy, knowledge and onward growth from when you sat down.

10# What is next for you, what have you got lined up after this project?

More life, More fun, More…


Barbershop Chronicles runs at the National Theatre from 30th May – 8th July 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.