What a joyful trip around the world by way of the black man’s universal safe space.
After a world tour, which took place after its 2017 critically acclaimed sellout first run at the National Theatre Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles comfortably returns to London in the perfect setting of Camden’s infamous Roundhouse. Directed by Olivier Award-winning director Bijan Sheibani and designed by Rae Smith (War Horse), Barber Shop Chronicles is a heart-warming, hilarious and insightful new play that leaps from a barbershop in Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra over the course of a single day.
That’s the official word but of course, a play set in barbershops across Africa and one in London is so much more than that. Like the weaving of traditional Kente Cloth the narratives, the stories, the anger, the jokes are what bind Ellams’ vision together. The poet/author turned playwright said when researching this play he travelled through countries in Africa speaking to people, documenting conversations and it shows.
With Three Kings Barbers in London, England being the central spot, this play teaches us about inter-global-connectivity. From the pre-show warm-up where trickling in audience members are invited to interact with the cast kind of in character, kind of not – dance to the music, get a ‘hair cut‘ chop it up until told to settle in their seats. Then, after an engaging Accapella transition Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray) lets us know there’s a problem. Transitioning again to Africa, Lagos to be precise we then meet another barber with a different problem and so it begins. Against the anticipated Barcelona vs Chelsea match the barbers and their patrons discuss a wide range of trans-global issues, racism, relationships, manhood, parenting, lineage, culture, tradition, and history.
What makes Barber Shop Chronicles an engaging watch is the liveliness of the all-male cast. With some taking on multiple characters as we move from country to country, the way a conversation begins in Accra is dropped in Kampala, revisited in London and explained in Johannesberg is thoughtful. The wittiness of African-isms will have you laughing as you empathise with the topics discussed. We are given all the stereotypes you’d expect – the wise/cheesy uncle, the angst-filled/angry young man, the regretful drunk, the black activist, the old man who laments the loss of culture and tradition, we’re also treated to the obligatory easy going charming Caribbean barber. Who sums everything up neatly ‘you crazy Africans‘.
To single out an actor would be unfair. The company of brilliant stars from the original cast Maynard Eziashi, Adé Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Ladipo, Mohammed Mansaray, Anthony Ofoegbu, David Webber, and new cast members Micah Balfour, Okorie Chukwu, Tom Moutchi, Elmi Rashid Elmi, and Eric Shango display a camaraderie which is effectively showcased during the well-choreographed transitions.
The only quibble with Barber Shop Chronicles is though it is brilliant to hear African accents as authentic as can be, there are times when it’s difficult to catch all the dialogue. As an African myself even I had to strain forward during some scenes. Another gripe is that as a Ghanaian African, the accent when in Accra leaned too much toward a generic Nigerian accent. In comparison to the efforts made when in Kampala and Johannesburg. There were also times the heart of the narrative gets a little lost in the movement from country to country. But possibly this is just a tweak of delivery and clarity; maybe a little trim of excess dialogue.
However, Mr Ellams should be proud of this brilliant production. He’s provided a wonderful glimpse into safe space we are all welcome to enjoy.
Barber Shop Chronicles runs at the Camden Roundhouse until Saturday 24th August 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.
It will also go on a UK tour after its run at the Roundhouse:
October 9th – 12th 2019 – www.oxfordplayhouse.com
Eden Court, Inverness
October 16th – 19th 2019 – https://eden-court.co.uk/
October 23rd – 9th November 2019 – https://lyceum.org.uk/
Nuffield Southampton Theatres
November 13th – 16th 2019 – www.nstheatres.co.uk
November 20th – 23rd 2019 – https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/