This month, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles sweeps into West Yorkshire Playhouse following a premiere in London. A co-production between Fuel, the Playhouse and the National Theatre, the play found its beginnings as a work-in-progress at the Playhouses’ own Transform Festival in 2014.
Barber Shop Chronicles comes to Leeds as a vibrant in-the-round production, ensuring audiences are drawn into the heart of the action as the stage becomes a busy barber shop floor.
Set in numerous shops across the globe, including Johannesburg, Lagos and London, Inua Ellams’ compelling play inspects the peculiar confidence between barber and client; a unique relationship where small talk often evolves into grand, geopolitical debate. The shops may be spread across different continents, but Ellams explores the threads, frustrations and old fables which recur as men turn up to have a trim and unburden their minds.
Barber Shop Chronicles is peppered with many stories which require focus, but the busy and richly textured style is the true joy of the play. Characters brag about their sexual conquests, argue about the nature of racism, parenthood and the perceived failures of Mandella or Mugabe. Opinions are contentious and emotions run high. Whilst the attitudes may differ from one shop to the next, the relationship between a barber and his client remains fundamentally the same; a sympathetic ear and, on the whole, a responsive confidant.
Ellams’ vibrant dialogue feels wholly authentic, with patois abundantly punctuating the dialect. Like a well-directed performance of Shakespeare, one’s ear quickly becomes atuned to the rhythms and intonations of the language. Strong casting also provides a landscape of young and mature voices, which range from the comic to the tragic. All share a naturalistic, honest quality in their engaging and full-blooded performances.
Charisma runs through each of the vignettes with an Alan Bennett-like detail of observation; there are plenty of laughs to be had at a homosexual complaining about an ingrowing hair, counterpointed with a particularly tragic two-hander from an alcoholic who rationalises his disease with his ancestors toiling in the vineyards.
Bijan Sheibani’s fluid direction blends shopfloor drama with brief interludes of choreography and acapella underscore. For a show about men sitting in chairs, the play never feels stilted; there is a rapid sense of movement and shifting of space, ensuring the audience witnesses a full 360-degree view of every scene. Barber shop chairs gracefully coast around the space with a balletic movement, as scenes transition across the globe, reproducing particular details in props such as a petrol generator and wall mounted TV set.
Played out through a single act of just over 90 minutes, Barber Shop Chronicles is short, sharp and a cut above your usual theatrical experience. A capsule of strong voices and vibrant identities, presented with an infectious energy, the play is a magnetic study of the unique relationship between client and barber; a safe space for discussion and confession, offering a relationship which is, evidently, much the same the world over.
Cast: Cyril Nri, David Webber, Fisayo Akinade, Hammed Animashaun, Kwami Odoom, Maynard Eziashi, Patrice Naiambana, Peter Bankolé, Simon Manyonda, Sule Rimi, Abdul Salis. Director: Bijan Sheibani Writer: Inua Ellams Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 95 minutes Dates: Wednesday 12th to Saturday 29th July.