Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles follows the events and conversations of one day in six cities, moving from a barbershop in Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra; all tied together by stories, jokes and a crucial Barcelona vs Chelsea football match.
The play takes the audience and characters on a journey, through hilarious anecdotes, confessions, history and politics to challenge the homogeneity of African masculinity.
You can’t help but get engulfed in the energy, excitement and freedom of this piece and the characters within it; the businessmen, the preachers, the alcoholics and the local legends.
The barbershop becomes a platform for men, young and old, to come together to explore what it means to be African in a changing and complex world.
Ellams brilliantly captures the political poignancy of the everyday oral histories, exchanges and seemingly trivial facets of our personal lives and puts them on the world’s stage.
Before the play begins, the audience are greeted into the space by characters dancing to live DJ sounds, chattering and coaxing audience members on stage.
The lively and current soundtrack is the heartbeat of this piece, featuring Afrobeats, grime, hip-hop and traditional melodies. Music holds the play in exciting ways.
Director Bijan Sheibani does a clever job of navigating the physical space. The play’s form is refreshing and unconventional. It draws you in, creating closeness then catapulting you back out to create uncomfortable distance when necessary.
The impressive transitions are marked through song, dance, chair-spinning and cape-flipping. In these moments, the cast come together as an ensemble – with the spinning globe, the focal point of the stage, we see universality in these stories.
If you are looking for a play with layers, then Barbers Shop Chronicles is it. This a play that we have been waiting for and it will wow audiences at Bristol Old Vic during its fortnight-long run.
It serves you a cross-generational and cross-cultural menu of perspectives to chew on. An impressive amount of material is packed into this masterpiece; skilfully deep-diving from love triangles and language, to colonial legacies and fatherhood.
Barber Shop Chronicles is honest about its intentions; to simultaneously be a celebration, a challenge and a question. There’s something fascinating about the transformative and cathartic process of getting your hair cut that this play brings out.
A similar thing happens in the Old Vic’s auditorium. Through the storytelling, protesting and humour, Barber Shop Chronicles holds a mirror up to its audience and asks, do you like what you see?
Barber Shop Chronicles is at the Bristol Old Vic until May 18. For tickets and more information, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/barber-shop-chronicles
All photos by Marc Brenner