Written by poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles comes to Manchester’s Royal Exchange where it’s co-presented by Contact and credits Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse as co-producers (that being the nature of theatrical productions these days) following not only two sell-out runs at the National but also a world tour.
It’s easy enough to see why this energetic, insightful and extremely funny play has been such a hit. Set over one day in six different cities – Lagos, Kampala, Harare, Johannesburg, Accra and London’s Peckham – the production throws opens the doors of the barber shop. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops not just for a trim or a shave but to discuss the world. Africans don’t go to the pub, says one character, they go to the barber instead. So everything from politics and language to families and football are feasibly on the ever-changing agenda and it’s not just the blades that are sharp.
With a fired-up new cast, it’s structured as a series of vignettes linked by brief musical interludes, shifting fluidly from comedy to poignancy to rage. If there’s one theme that knits them all together, it’s that of fatherhood. Many of the characters are reacting to absent or violent fathers and, inevitably, the notion of masculinity comes up a lot, as does nationhood and cultural identity in a world where national boundaries, if not actually disappearing are taking on very different forms. Its playful nature means that serious discussions about, for instance, the importance of language or disappointment at Mandela’s ‘failure’ to exact retribution for centuries of white oppression might easily, and perfectly plausibly, be juxtaposed with elation at a football team’s success or hilarity at a character’s dubious attitude to bedding either white or black women.
A joyful, rich and rewarding production, Barber Shop Chronicles is jam-packed with questions and ideas, yet is also immensely entertaining.
Photos by Marc Brenner
Barber Shop Chronicles is at the Royal Exchange until March 23, 2019. For more information, click here.