Hearing of its sell-out runs, and reading plenty of outstanding reviews, I was intrigued to see what left Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles head and shoulders above other touring plays from the last few years. Bursting with colour, pride and joy, this electric production- streamed as part of the National Theatre At Home service- is a beacon of light among a sea of new writing and contemporary theatre.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles explores barber shops in African culture, commenting on how they have embodied a variety of different roles and responsibilities in their representation of a microcosm of society. Since the nineteenth century, these stores have provided a unique social function for African men to safely and comfortably share stories and discuss prominent issues within their culture. The show’s narrative plays on this idea by following a range of characters across six cities; we get the joy of hearing thousands of these individual stories unfurl as their barber shops take on a variety of forms, from confession booth to newsroom. Although slightly sporadic, and confusing at times, Ellams’s narrative provides Sheibani’s actors to demonstrate their versatility and talent through multi-roling.
Rae Smith’s stage design is one of the strongest elements of this production. The interweaving web of stories and characters, combined with the in-the-round and intimate nature of the staging, allows the audience to completely immerse themselves within this world to get lost in the company’s energetic performance, which is filled with important messages. Dressed in colourful, vintage barbershop attire, the stage is lit with bright yellow colours to compliment the comedy on stage and connect itself to its cultural roots by utilising colours from the South African flag. The close proximity of the audience and actors, hand-in-hand with some of the barber shops’ customer’s seats being placed within the audience, is a polite nod to Sheibani’s Brechtian inspiration that allowed the audience to develop deeper relationships with the characters on stage to gain a further insight into their lives.
Aside from the comedic and deeply-layered acting, strangely, I really enjoyed watching the scene changes from city to city. Overseen by choreographer Aline David, joyous energy and exuberant dancing are accompanied by modern grime and afro-beat music from artists such as Skepta and Fuse ODG. Presenting themselves as mosaics of African culture, the transitions also make use of choral singing and chanting to illustrate a sense of pride and community. Choreographed interactions between the actors and props, such as hairdressing cloaks and scissors, embeds a distinct sense of purpose into transitions and expressed the jubilant atmosphere of the barber shops, demonstrating that, actually, you can do a lot with a little. Scene transitions don’t have to be something to be ignored, or left under the cloak of a blackout!
Barber Shop Chronicles is such an important production to modern society. Racial and cultural debates are delicately threaded into its dialogue, whilst exploring themes of fatherhood and masculinity at the same time. The scene that dedicated itself to a discussion of the historical etymology and the correct use of “the ‘N’ word” particularly stuck with me. This topic has been widely debated throughout history, and it was interesting to see the differing perspectives on it from members of the black community and how it is used today. Even though the play managed to create multiple moments of levity within dark subject matters, there were multiple scenes that really touched me- something that I was not expecting when I sat down to watch a comedy. It was difficult to see that racism and discrimination are issues that are still prevalent in our society, and I am thankful that these candid, personal struggles have been developed for the stage so that audiences can gain a wider understanding of the injustices that people of colour face in our society, and how we can work to prevent them.
This production is an iconic, era-defining piece of theatre that I believe everyone should watch at some point during their lives. National Theatre At Home have provided such an accessible way for this production to reach wider audiences, and I am incredibly grateful for its inclusivity during the Coronavirus pandemic. Barber Shop Chronicles is a perfect example of how watching theatre can be an enriching experience, proving why our theatre industry needs to be supported as much as possible during these difficult times. My only regret about this performance is that I didn’t go and see its live tour to experience the captivating vibrancy of it first-hand.
Words by Hannah Rooney.