Written by Inua Ellams
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Cast: Fisayo Akinade (Samuel), Hammed Animashaun (Wallace/Timothy/Mohammed/Tinashe), Peter Bankolé (Kwabena/Brian/Fabrice/Olawale), Maynard Eziashi (Musa/Andile/Mensah), Simon Manyonda (Tanaka/Fiifi), Patrice Naiambana (Tokunbo/Paul/Simphiwe), Cyril Nri (Emmanuel), Kwami Odoom (Ethan), Sule Rimi (Elnathan/Benjamin/Dwain), Abdul Salis (Keane/Simon/Wole), David Webber (Abram/Ohene/Sizwe), Anthony Welsh (Winston/Shoni)
Wherever there are men, there are barber shops. Sacred places where troubles are often shed with the hair and where the week’s best conversation can happen. Every man gets to be the centre of somebody’s attention for as long as it takes to get a haircut or a shave and it’s intimate attention too – probably the only everyday kind of physical intimacy between men that feels universally comfortable on both sides.
And it’s the same no matter where you go in the world. Inua Ellams’ dazzling new play spells this out by dividing its action between barber’s shops in Accra, Harare, Johannesburg, Kampala, Lagos and London. This last is the setting for the greatest number of scenes, hub for the diaspora of the nations of Africa that it is. Each of the African stories relates subtly to the characters we see in the London scenes but all of them are united around live television coverage of Barcelona v Chelsea.
There are truthful and moving stories here, but this is a production whose whole manages to be even greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that changes of scene feel almost subliminal is a part of the reason why. These are choreographed into joy-packed interludes of seemingly spontaneous dance and banter, and recall those minutes before the play begins where audience members are ushered into chairs to be given expertly mimed haircuts. Despite the serious emotional heart of the story whose strands come together in Peckham, the overall feeling is one of celebration.
It celebrates diversity even though everyone on the stage is male: the variety of ages, locations and cultures threaded throughout feels unprecedented. It celebrates masculinity as a positive force in the world. It celebrates fatherhood, the complexities and challenges of father and child relationships successfully in ways that Fatherland never quite managed at the most recent Manchester International Festival. It’s beautifully honest without becoming sentimental, never trying to excuse or justify the shortcomings of men. And it celebrates Africa as the wellspring of so many nations, peoples and cultures. If the politicians and journalists of countries like the UK were to see this play, the hope is that they would never again be tempted to use meaningless phrases like ‘the black community’
Barber Shop Chronicles is faultlessly acted by every member of the cast, most of whom have to play several characters who could hardly be more different from one another. Inevitably it’s those playing one character throughout who make the most lasting impression: Cyril Nri as Emmanuel, hiding his emotional heart beneath an easygoing pragmatism, or the simmering of Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel who manages to be a hurt boy and an angry man simultaneously. Then there’s Patrice Naiambana (who’d win the prize for this year’s most painful-looking stage wedgie if An Octoroon’s Ken Nwosu hadn’t already hobbled off with it) being equally impressive as a Nigerian, a Ugandan and the angry, frustrated South African Simphiwe. Kwami Odoom is also highly memorable in his portrayal Simphiwe’s estranged son Ethan, an actor living in London. The character has to deliver some dialogue which risks collapsing under the weight of its own resonance within the play but Odoom brings such fresh, believable ease to the character that the lines in question seem completely natural.
There are a couple of moments when the dialogue doesn’t fare quite so well in sounding like something a real person would say in conversation but this is hardly surprising in a play determined to touch upon so many themes. Politics both personal and national jostle with humour, football, philosophy, religion and the importance of language here. But the lasting impression is one of positive humanity, an impression strengthened by outstanding presentation and performance. You leave the theatre dancing.
Barber Shop Chronicles returns to the National Theatre in November.