Image by Marc Brenner
Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams – National Theatre At Home (Dorfman)
The energy of Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles comes across clearly in this version, filmed for the National Theatre archives rather than for live broadcast. While the cameras remain still the cast of nine is a force of energy, driving the play from barber shop to barber shop, in London and several African countries. Ellams has written an all-male piece, but there is a clear justification – the exploration of the barber shop as a space for gathering, particularly although not exclusively for those who do not drink alcohol. His lively writing convincingly creates the atmosphere of social spaces that belong to the men who come, ostensibly for a hair cut, and stay to discuss anything and everything with one another.
The play is also unusual and important because it bring African voices to the British stage. From the opening scene, conducted in Nigerian accents so strong they are hard to make out, it is immediately obvious that we are hearing voices that simply do not feature in our theatre. Yet London is full of people from all the countries featured in the play – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. The action switches back and forth between a London barber and shops in cities across these countries, where Ellams shows his skills. He has based his work on 60 hours of recordings made on location, and he makes these settings seem the logical place for discussion of politics, the roles of men and women and of personal hopes and troubles while, in the background, the European Champions League Final plays out on TV between Barcelona and Chelsea. If anything unites characters from disparate places, it is their love of Chelsea FC.
The performers are, above all, part of a very strong ensemble but there are particular stand-outs in Patrice Naimamba as a cynical South African, Fisayo Akinade as a young man with a grievance, who finds out that the men around him are kinder than he ever imagined. Bijan Sheibani’s production is wave of enjoyment that also succeeds in tackling multiple questions about the identities of African and British African, and their complex relationships with two continents.