Photos – Prudence Upton
Upon entering the large amphitheatre of the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre, regular patrons will find it transformed into a sprawling barbershop, its hand-painted posters and great snaking tendrils of patched and intertwining electrical cables extending out from the stage area into the auditorium itself. This audience-encroaching production design by Rae Smith is just one of the ways in which this show creates an immersive environment for its stories.
Sprawling stories they are too, with the large ensemble of a dozen actors mostly doubling and even trebling up to create an extensive cast of characters, all men of African descent, variously from Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and the UK. The action frequently switches between several of these locations to encompass many varied scenes and ongoing storylines, which weave in and out of different cultures, histories and conflicts.
There are only two constants throughout; every scene is set in a barbershop, and everyone wants to watch the soccer match between Chelsea FC and Barcelona.
Inua Ellams’ play shows how the cultural importance of barbershops to black men extends far beyond the necessities of grooming. He portrays them as places of community, a forum for political debate, a venue for storytelling, to share and fight over music, tell jokes, talk about girlfriends, jobs, and personal history. As one rum-imbibing Jamaican barber in London quips, “You Africans don’t drink, so the Barbershop is like the pub for you.”
The community barbershop is also presented as a place for generations of men to interact and learn from each other in ways perhaps not always possible with their own fathers, if their many recounted stories of parental abuse and indifference are anything to go by. “Respect your elders!” is a recurring phrase that seems to cut across the various African cultures depicted here, and yet the interaction of younger men with their seniors is often laced with a wry scepticism of aging storytellers’ tendencies to romanticise or exaggerate the past. Indeed, as another repeated statement jokes, “The older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy.”
This fast-paced and energetic show is highly dynamic, with its many scenes ranging from the comedic to the bawdy, arguments about sport, music, and money, discussions of family strife, and strongly political talk on racism and generational struggle for personal identity. The play is clearly asking the question of what it is to be a black man today, be it in the UK or the former British colonies in Africa, sometimes in the absence of role models, often without money or respect, sometime even for oneself.
Encompassing such a wide variety of human stories, the play is often quite political in its discourse about race, culture, identity, and nationalism. Although such conversations (and the ensuing arguments) do not dominate the show’s runtime, they are a sufficient focus of multiple scenes that, for those unfamiliar with modern postcolonial African history, it might be a good idea to brush up. Being forearmed with a crash course in the careers of Mandela and Mugabe at the very least is advisable, unless you are already well versed or content to simply let the general thrust of the pertinent content wash over you.
With an ebullient cast of strong actors, the intercut anthology nature of the show is broken up with a lot of minimalist scene-changes between the different locales, with the breaks in narrative often punctuated by brief but striking moments of interspersed singing and dancing by the cast, never allowing the conversations to get overlong, nor the turmoil too overpowering. However hilarious, touching or dramatically intense some of the sequences become, before you know it the action will shift, usually after a brief yet raucous musical interlude.
The Barber Shop Chronicles a striking and richly engaging show about community and culture, from the personal to the political and all that is in between.
Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse presents
The Barber Shop Chronicles
by Inua Ellams
Director Bijan Sheibani
Venue: York Theatre, Seymour Centre | N/A
Dates: 18 – 28 January 2018
Part of the 2018 Sydney Festival