Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre
Therapy session, linguistics lecture and history lesson. Pulpit and parliament. Home. In Barber Shop Chronicles Inua Ellams not only celebrates a cultural space little, if ever, seen on stage, but uses it to explore notions of black masculinity, community and African identity.
Ellams constructs his play like a series of interconnected short stories, using a Champions League final between Chelsea and Barcelona as its spine. Characters briefly mentioned in one scene become the focus of the next, gradually creating layers of personal and political profundity as if reading a book by Elizabeth Strout or Louise Erdrich. Lines of dialogue echo from location to location, taking on different meanings dependant on the specific context of country and speaker. And while the most substantial chronicle takes place in London, as Ellams digs deeper into the animosity between Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel and Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel, make no mistake – this is a truly pan-African narrative.
Following the Salome/Common disaster over on the Olivier it appeared as if the National Theatre was going through an early summer crisis; however here it has its most vibrant and grin-inducing play since Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Before Barber Shop even begins director Bijan Sheibani makes sure the audience is in party mode. Hip-hop and grime blares from the speakers as the cast drag people on stage, giving fake haircuts and acting as hype-men for the impending production.
This carnival atmosphere continues once things get underway, in no small part thanks to Rae Smith’s detailed design. Everything is on wheels so the transitions become dance numbers, the actors chanting and singing as we whizz from London to Ghana, Nigeria to Uganda, Zimbabwe to South Africa. A skeletal globe-cum-disco ball hangs overhead, while shop signs are tethered to the banisters of the Dorfman’s second level, lighting up whichever barbers we’re currently visiting. Metres and metres of fibre optic cable then hang from the ceiling, amplifying the idea of interconnectivity.
The ensemble is so damn charismatic that to pick out favourites feels cruel, especially since nearly everyone is pulling double or triple duty. However, Patrice Naiambana makes a real impression as the alcoholic Simphiwe, a man rightly furious at the injustices of a racist South Africa and a fatherless childhood. Hammed Animashaun – increasingly an NT regular – is a riot as the puffed-up Muhammed. And Cyril Nri is quietly heart-breaking as London-bound barber Emmanuel.
If there is any justice Barber Shop Chronicles will follow Our Ladies to the West End – though good luck reproducing this level of energy in one of London’s more stuffy theatres.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Barber Shop Chronicles is at the National Theatre from 30th May until 8th July 2017, for further information or to book visit here.