A production of interesting contrasts and startling truths, Barber Shop Chronicles offers an entertaining insight into a world we don’t often see represented on the stage.
Inua Ellams’ play centres on overheard conversations between black men in barber shops in London and across Africa – we see cities in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Director Bijan Sheibani creates a relaxed atmosphere from the initial pre-show mingling onwards, evoking a sociable yet distinctly masculine space.
Scene changes and musical interludes act as a celebration of African culture through evocative a cappella harmonies and fantastically fun choreography. At other moments, the tone is serious and subdued as deeply-buried problems are articulated from the barber’s chair.
For this production, fibre optics have been woven into the fabric of the Royal Exchange’s pod. The barber shop is presented as a “lighthouse” and a “beacon for the community” where men can go to talk about their troubles as they bond over football and shared humour.
Light is an important motif throughout, with the set design (by Rae Smith) and lighting design (by Jack Knowles) working in tandem to establish a clear sense of place. Different pieces of barber shop signage encircle the stage, and these are individually illuminated to indicate the setting for each scene. Similarly, the relevant geographical location lights up on a large wire globe that looms over the action at the centre of the stage. The source and quality of light within each barber shop changes too, perhaps to highlight different levels of economic development. In Lagos, for example, filament bulbs are lit by a generator whereas the London shop is brightly lit by harsh spotlights running from the mains.
Costume is also used as a visual cue, often signalling the status of the characters as well as showing the differences between them. Demmy Lapido’s young, London-based Mohammed is a figure of fun in gold-festooned baseball cap and bomber jacket covered in roses, which contrasts starkly with the sombre shirt and slacks of middle-aged alcoholic Simphiwe in South Africa (a convincing Emmanuel Ighodaro).
The idea of presenting authentic voices is clearly important to the production (as seen from the verbatim origins of the dialogue) and accents change to reflect geography. But despite these superficial differences between the characters, there is an overarching sense of the commonality of experience and emotion.
Many of the vignettes emphasise the importance of upbringing in shaping personal identity. Mistakes are repeated over generations and the most overt displays of aggression often seem to stem from insecurity (for Simphiwe, fear of failing as a father heart-breakingly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). The use of recurring themes, preoccupations and characters bind the different scenes effectively into a cohesive whole. Returning regularly to the ‘Three Kings’ barber shop in London reinforces and develops the main narrative arc charting the animosity between Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), and young stylist Sam (Mohammed Mansaray). The way the tension simmers under the surface before coming to the fore is directed beautifully by Sheibani.
Tone is carefully modulated throughout. When everything gets a bit heavy, the atmosphere is punctured by humour and, apart from occasional moments when characters become mouthpieces for ideas or arguments, it feels real. It is as though the audience is part of the action, waiting for a haircut, and the intimacy of the in-the-round space aids the feeling of authenticity.
The cast – who seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves – draw the audience into the action and communicate the stories with total conviction. It is well worth a visit to the Royal Exchange to see this spritely yet thought-provoking production.
Barber Shop Chronicles is presented by the Royal Exchange Theatre and Contact Theatre and can be seen at the Royal Exchange until 23 March 2019. It is a co-production between Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse.