I saw Barber Shop Chronicles a couple of years ago and thought it was one of the best things I have ever seen on stage so when I got the chance to see it again I couldn’t wait. As it has been on a world tour since then I was also intrigued as to see how it had developed.
As a gentleman who is follicly challenged a trip to the hairdresser is a rarer occurrence for me than most chaps. When I do go there always seems to be a bloke having coloured highlights or a perm costing the earth but this play centres upon the type of place I remember from my childhood when I had to visit the local barber once a fortnight which, even on a weekday, would be full of men having a discussion about sport and politics and whatever else was brought up. Sometimes I was disappointed when I had been shorn as I would miss the end of the banter. The barber shops in this play take the culture to a different level, a cut above you might say – but wouldn’t.
The action of the play takes place on 18th April 2012, the day on which Chelsea beat Barcelona 1-0 to send them through to the final of that year’s UEFA Champions League Final where they beat Bayern Munich. The play isn’t about football though it is just a clever way in which the writer, Inua Ellams, links the barbers shops in question which are situated in Johannesburg, Kampala, Harare, Lagos, Accra, and Peckham. All of the staff and customers are black although not necessarily from the country where they are currently residing. The real crux of the piece is to examine the attitudes to several subjects and how some vary between the nations whilst others are common to all of them. Themes covered include the disciplining of children, drinking, drugs, sexuality and race but the most important of all is the examination of what it means to be a strong black man and the reluctance to speak about mental health issues.
The construction of the play ties all the ends together brilliantly in a conversation between the owner of the London shop and his 18 year-old client at the very end. Apart from the football reference is the telling of a joke in all the shops showing the prejudices of the residents to those who live in other parts of their countries. A stroke of genius. There was also the mention of colonialism which was illustrated by one of the customers in the Kampala shop being introduced to the others as a man who wrote a Spanish to Swahili dictionary when he lived in Mexico because before he did so they had to translate everything into English and then on to Spanish or Swahili, something which I admit had never occurred to me.
Alright, from what I have written so far it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs but that could not be further from the truth. This is one of the most exciting, exuberant, funny evenings you will ever spend in a theatre. The repartee, wit, dancing and the odd bit of conflict bring an energy which is contagious. Even before the play starts the audience is totally involved and stays so throughout.
When I first saw the play it was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in the round, this time it is in the same premises now known as Leeds Playhouse but in the more formal setting of being on a stage at one end of the auditorium. When I walked into The Quarry Theatre and saw this set up I was worried that it might be to the detriment of the production but not a bit of it, it was still as involving and immersive.
Without exception the acting was superb and the timing split-second accurate. It needed to be as the number of actors who spent spells dancing on the stage and whizzing about on wheeled swivel chairs was mind-blowing. The programme lists twelve cast members, all except two of whom played multiple roles, and even when they were not in the action they became customers sitting around the stage.
The set comprised said chairs and the odd sofa and mattress with rope lights strewn over a partition at the rear of the stage. There was also an old portable generator wheeled on when the action was taking place in the Ugandan shop. Above the stage was suspended a disco ball and a globe which was not solid but had the continents outlined in fine metal tubing and when the action changed from one shop to another the globe would slowly turn and the outline of the country and city would light up. This accompanied the changing of the time on the clocks on the partition and the whole cast dancing to music of the country involved. Fortunately they also chanted the name of the city which helped.
This leads me nicely on to the Movement Director, Aline David. The actors were immaculately drilled in their footwork and the way they flourished the cutting gowns when dancing, looking for all the world like eccentric matadors. The moves had to be spot on because twelve men on a fairly small stage, shifting at the pace they did was a recipe for a night in A&E but it was perfect.
The Director, Bijan Sheibani, did just as good a job with the rest of the elements as did the Lighting Designer, Jack Knowles, whose illumination of the sudden bursts of action after poignant quiet passages was again timed to perfection. I will go for a full house here with mention of Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Musical Director Michael Henry both of whom brought the play to life with the quiet passages being just as clear as the louder ones and the folk songs and dances chosen superbly as were the more contemporary popular pieces. The way in which the commentary of the football match was interwoven with the action was also very effective.
Insofar as the cast is concerned it would be unfair to single any one of the players out for special praise so I will just list them. Micah Balfour, Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adé Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Ladipo, Mohammed Mansaray, Tom Moutchi, Anthony Ofoegbu, Elmi Rashid Elmi, Eric Shango and David Webber. Each brought their own larger than life character to the play and made it the triumph that it is.
Tickets to Barber Shop Chronicles, which is a Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse Production are limited but it runs until Saturday, 23rd November at Leeds Playhouse so I urge you to go along to see it if you possibly can.
Feature photograph Mark Brenner