Perth Festival review: Barber Shop Chronicles, by Inua Ellams ·
Octagon Theatre, 9 February ·
Review: Xan Ashbury ·
Often I enter a hair salon feeling flatter than my hair looks, then quickly pull out a novel to guard against magazines and small-talk – both of which I find terrifying. But then, invariably, my hairdresser and I get chatting and before long my novel is closed and I am an open book. Hours later it’s not just my regrowth that has disappeared: I am a piano retuned. And it isn’t just the cut or the colour or the head massage, it’s the soothing balm of conversation. I step outside feeling lighter, happier and more connected to the world.
I experienced that same buzz exiting the Barber Shop Chronicles on Friday night – a play which explores barber shops as “sacred spaces”.
It wasn’t just the dozens of illuminating, poignant, heart-wrenching and hilarious stories that tumbled from the tongues of those sitting in the barber’s chair. And it wasn’t just the visual spectacle of twelve African men dancing to infectious rhythms.
A show like this is greater than the sum of its parts.
Barber Shop Chronicles is written by Nigerian-born poet and playwright Inua Ellams, whose commitment to his vision is impressive. He spent six weeks travelling through Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe and returned with 60 hours of recordings from barber shops. The play, which went through 14 drafts, is a co-production of Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The production’s dozen actors play a total of 30 characters in five countries, drawn from a wide range of social classes and occupations, political leanings, faiths and lifestyles. Among them, the style-conscious businessman, the jobseeker who does a runner, the Muslim “ladies man” in London who justifies his preference for white women.
The dialogue reveals the bond between barber and client, the loyalty and sacrifices of friendship, the struggles and triumphs of identity and the legacy of racism and colonialism. From politics, to dating, to rappers’ use of the “n-word”, the characters debate issues with passion, humour and eloquence.
As one character explains: “The white man came and we had the land and he had the Bible. And then he taught us to pray with our eyes closed and when we opened them, he had the land and we had the Bible.”
Many hold court with personal stories. More than once, a cheeky young barber replies: “The older a man gets, the faster he ran as a child.” That balance of loss and levity, and poignancy and playfulness, underpins the whole production, directed by Olivier Award-winner Bijan Sheibani.
The stunning set, designed by Rae Smith, consists of a patchwork of signs a scramble of overhead wires. At one level, the wires resemble iconic images of bustling cities such as Lagos. Symbolically, they speak about a web, a network stretching from Africa, to London and beyond. And in the play’s final moments, several links are revealed between the five barber shops and their cast of colourful characters. It is a satisfying ending and one that reminds us of our shared humanity and innate need for connection.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a thought-provoking and uplifting play that is to be applauded for its energy, spirit, and sheer brilliance.
Top photo: Toni Wilkinson