Tue, 22 Oct 2019
Barber Shop Chronicles at the Oxford Playhouse
Review by Jon Lewis
INUA Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles begins with dozens of school children dancing on stage in a gig, co-creating the scene with the National Theatre cast. The company fans out among the invitees, with one performer singing live into a microphone. A few lucky individuals are invited to sit with the actors, taking selfies and group photos. It’s a groovy, feelgood way to hook a young audience for a vibrant show that’s nearly two hours long without an interval. Ellams is interested in how barber shops are female-free community spaces for men to hang out. The barbers, like barmen or psychiatrists, listen to stories of woe or adventure, work and family life, offering advice and support. These are not transactional relationships despite the fees charged for the service. In London and five English-speaking countries across Africa, barbers and their clients’ stories demonstrate the interconnectedness of the world. Designer Rae Smith’s silvery globe rotating above the stage, illuminating the country where the scene is set, eventually sees all the lines coalesce, one world shared.
In each country a football match between Chelsea and Barcelona is on the television, the men breaking away from their own narratives to debate the intricacies of the tactics and players’ intentions. More controversially, some of the characters are given provocative political views: pro Winnie Mandela and Robert Mugabe, one man critical of Nelson Mandela for letting whites off the hook. Despite their shared African heritage, each country is seen within its unique context of national, ethnic and religious divisions. In one scene violence and beatings are described as ‘the wrong kind of language’, while in another, language becomes a weapon of rebellion and state unity, with a discussion on how pidgin should replace English as a symbol of national determination.
Director Bijan Sheibani marshals a tip-top cast. Among many perceptive performances, Anthony Ofoegbu’s Emmanuel, part owner of a barber shop in London, emerges as an unheralded hero, holding together the business and family despite his own brother’s imprisonment for fraud. With catchy songs and memorable characters, this production perceptively places the African diaspora centre stage. A must-see.