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FringeReview UK 2017

Barber Shop Chronicles

National Theatre, London in association with Fuel and West Yorkshire Playhouse

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Dramatist Innua Ellams’ fourteen-scene play unfolds as an ensemble take on one socialised activity through various countries. Best known at the National for The 14th Tale, here Ellams’ vision is grounded in Rae Smith’s ever flexible in-the-round Dorfman space, directed by Bijan Sheibani. Aline David’s movement is almost dizzyingly constant, underscoring the verbal action. Gareth Fry’s sound with Michael Henry’s music snag and accelerate the beat. Jack Knowles’ lighting shafts through times and zones.


Poet, artist dramatist Innua Ellams growing up in Peckham, hailing from Nigeria noticed how barber shops for black men served as cultural and confessional hubs almost the way coffee houses did in the seventeenth century. Barber Shop Chronicles is a breath-taking revelation for those of us who had small inkling of a world in miniature, girdled indeed as the suspended wire globe spins its shadow on the revolving barbers’ shops below whilst caster chairs spin off and on with audience members pre-set invited for a ride, in Rae Smith’s ever flexible in-the-round Dorfman space, directed by Bijan Sheibani.


Aline David’s movement is almost dizzyingly constant, underscoring the verbal action, never pulling casters. Gareth Fry’s sound with Michael Henry’s music snag and accelerate the beat between different shops thousands of miles from each other, yet connecting in a plumbline down to Joburg.


When it stops, as with barbers’ capes choreographed in a toreador routine, Jack Knowles’ lighting shafts six a.m. and we’re at one of those stations of the day when even barbers aren’t meant to be knocked up. In ninety minutes we’re whirled through fourteen scenes each lit up with a billboard helpfully reminding us we’re at a new or back to an old destination. Gradually the skein of connections looses itself and tightens like the over-energetically thrust bibs clients are subjected to.


Ellams tugs a string of capitals from Lagos, Accra, Kampala to South Africa with the pull of South London always a key thread. We begin in Lagos and that six a.m. knocking-up, a young man interview-ready in desperate need for an aerodynamic haircut to become a driver, absconding without paying.


There’s a heart-warming payoff to that story, near the end. We’re soon in London with wronged young Samuel whose father’s banged up for a crime he apparently didn’t commit, robbing his own shop. Fisayo Akinade tensely portrays the pulsing aspirations and smouldering injustice Samuel brings as he confronts his wrongdoer, rippling disturbances throughout the London scenes. Again, this narrative earns a grounding in the fourteenth narrative.


The prodigious outfall of stories can only be lightly sketched but are no less dazzling in variety of tonal and political address. The barbers’ shop is the go-to for politics, how Mugabe was right (there’s swift adaptation to his passing from power), how in the Joburg setting Winnie Mandela is hailed as true hero, not Nelson: she should be in power. There’s disquisitions elsewhere on language oppression, a gamut of Pidgin nuances with examples, the way English being thought in filters out black experience, how in Accra Ghana Hammed Animashaun’s Timothy expresses precisely the old blood-and-fault-lines of King Solomon – with a thirteen month calendar that sets off its own challenges and again assertion of non-English language. There’s a liveliness that always offsets seemingly solid expositions


Ellams never flinches from in-you-conscience political lecture. Should we be in the slightest bit put off? Not on your theatre seat. If it’s stuffed with politics it exhilarates with slant takes on politics you’d never guess at. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential tenure is satirically nailed. ‘Want to save Nigeria? Goodluck.’


Between jokes there’s a terrible tenderness about for instance a child only low on the autistic spectrum but stigmatised against. Silences as much as banter are implied. The Accra scene underscores new fatherhood and such saws as ‘I’m your father not your friend’ are aired alongside over-nurturing and chastisement. Nothing is presented for easy slotting: Ellams won’t permit it.


On a similar trajectory, also compassing mental distress, there’s the harrowing South African narrative near the end. A now drunken man is back from London. He’s lost his wife long since because his long anger with his father has precipitated a breakdown. The father wants to apologize: the barber’s shop is the conduit for messages and counselling. The man’s own son is an actor, and he googles him. No way would that son who’s his mother’s child have inherited any blood from him. It’s a crushing expression of what Lewis Walport terms malignant sadness. Patrice Naiambana is both self-excoriatingly vulnerable and simmers a comic flash or two which makes it the more aching. But his son… see the last scene.


Comedy riffs nearly every tableau, from the barber’s own dandruff ‘Manna’ as falling from the whirling fans via the wielder’s head, through sudden ensemble pitches as the Barcelona/Chelsea pitch blasts in from a TV monitor (helpfully not in fact broadcast).


There should be special mention of the strut of fashion twirled from London grunge to yellow splashes in Joburg, sharp suits jostling splash patterns, Trilby-punched hats and slouch caps. Each destination is helpfully lit on a billboard above the surround set, but these fashions underscore the feel of a place and there’s no confusion as timbrally a shift here and there convinces at least a London audience of where we are.


There’s fine work from all twelve actors, in addition to those above particularly Cyril Niri’s Emmanuel, Anthony Welsh’s Winston. Peter Bankole, Maynard Ekiashi, Simon Manyonda, Sule Rimi; the rest of the cast are as flawless as it gets in this stylised though sympathetically-wrought homage to human warmth, sharing barter and airing grievance. The energy and role-switching is what you might expect, but the most deeply-etched performances linger too. The act of barbering is more than an exchange of service with fringe benefits: it’s a profound act of human adjustment, including that vital glance in the mirror.