The Barber Shop Chronicles written by Inua Ellams, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester must be the most ebullient, beguiling, effervescent, bopping and rapping entertainment available in the UK right now. An uplifted globe lights up the relevant African country, as the action moves between barber shops in Lagos, Accra, Jo’burg, Harare, Kampala and Accra while a barber shop in Peckham, London sandwiches them together. Football unites, and divides, the men during one match on one day of the year. In this play your tribe is through allegiance to either Chelsea or Barcelona!
Power is in the hands of the barber; as ‘Director of Hair’ he can create a persona, and using mirror magic persuade the punter that he has become that aerodynamic BMW driver and that he will get the job. In the sacred space of the barber shop there can be intimacy, conflict, political analysis, shared experiences; the customers are safe in the knowledge that it can be left behind once outside the door, but that a return is inevitable.
Performed at high speed, fuelled by driving rhythmic music, sonorous harmonic songs, and cape-waving dance, this dynamic ensemble of African men excel at story telling, creating larger than life characters who take up all the available space when they take centre stage. Spoken in a poetic sing-song rhythm, using rich and earthy language, the audience becomes intensely involved. We move between laughter and compassion, anger and shame, as the stories unfold, meld and merge, and the performers reveal their innermost selves. Some of the most emotional moments occur in discussions of being disciplined and the sorts of fathers they had as role models. Others had no experience to build on, being abandoned at birth. Recent history is explored, and the effects of colonialism: Nigerian experience is summarised thus –
“We had the land they had the Bible –
We closed our eyes –
When we opened them, they had the land, we had the Bible!!!
If only my visits to my ‘barber’ were so engaging, so effervescent, and such fun!
The play can be seen until 23 March in Manchester; directed by Bijan Sheibani, it is a co-production between Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse.