Barber Shop Chronicles at the Oxford Playhouse review *****

Barber Shop Chronicles

Oxford Playhouse, 10th October 2019

My regular reader is likely on the verge of giving up on the grounds that otiose attitude, (a sign of which is that I am running out of synonyms for lazy in these preamble apologies), means most of these comments take so long to appear on the page that the associated entertainment has invariably come on and gone.

But even by the Tourist’s shocking standards this takes some beating. Barber Shop Chronicles, which catapulted the careers of writer Inua Ellams and director, Bijan Sheibani, first appeared at the NT in 2017. Since then it has embarked on two national tours and returned to the South Bank. In this tour it will finally visit Leeds Playhouse before crossing the pond for a week at Brooklyn Academy of Music. New Yorkers, do not miss it.

So you can see it took the Tourist an inordinately long time to get round to seeing it, having initially assumed that it wasn’t for him, what with all that modern dance music, then that it wasn’t convenient and then having got slightly antsy at all the people telling him he must see it. Finally, and somewhat shamefacedly, he snuck off to Oxford to take a peek at the ever delightful Playhouse. Where fortunately a bunch of students were lapping up the on stage pre-show that frames the play sparing us boomers from any embarrassment.

I don’t need to add to the reviews and word of mouth approval. This is as good as they say it is. Inventive, exciting, uplifting. All true. But what most impressed me was the ability of Inua Ellams to shine a light on what it means to be a “strong, black man”, a father, a son, a friend, a colleague, in Africa today. And he does this without apology or faint-heartedness. There isn’t really a plot as such, we switch between 6 barber shops/shacks in Africa and in London on the day in April 2012 when Chelsea take on, and beat, Barcelona in the Champions League semi. However, as the men talk football, politics, language, race, disapora, relationships, fatherhood, in argument, confession and in jest (they all share the same, tired, joke), the stories mesh together to reveal their shared hopes, fears and frustration. Actually when I say there isn’t a plot, that isn’t quite true as in London we learn the truth about Samuel’s (Mohammed Mansaray) father and his father’s friend Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), which turns into an epiphany for this angry young man. These two share their shop with the nonchalant Jamaican Winston (Micah Balfour), generally bemused by the Afrocan customers, and help support the acting dreams of new customer Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi).

Music and dance punctuate the rapid scene changes as chairs, tables, towels and razors are shifted into place, courtesy of Aline David’ s sublime choreography, across Rae Smith’s rough and ready set, spinning globe and posters signing location. Peckham, Lagos, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg, Accra, may differ in terms of accent and fashion, (there are some very sharp threads on show), but these men share their masculinity, and, it is true, their misogyny, though generally in a humorous, not ugly, way. The 12 strong touring cast, (Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adee Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Lapido, Tom Moutchi, Eric Shango, David Webber, in addition to the four above), effortlessly shift between the various characters, moving from cocky to compassionate in the blink of an eye. Maybe, at times, it might have been interesting to linger longer in each of the locations, though we do get to reflect on unsettling political truths in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda, but, on balance, I can see why Inua Ellams, who spent six weeks interviewing and observing in Africa, whittling down 60 hours of recording to just two, wanted to cram so much of this vibrant dialogue in. After all his day job is a poet. Though with The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln and his forthcoming take on Three Sisters back at the National it is his stage work which is in the ascendant.

Exhilarating, joyful thoughtful theatre. Ordinary lives rendered extraordinary. A must see. And a reminder to me that a) I am quite dull and b) that I am too awkward for anything but 10 minutes and a couple of grunted pleasantries in the Turkish barbers down the road. Never mind.

PS I also have learnt what a WHAM supervisor, here Andrew Whiteoak. Wigs, Hair and Make-up. Obviously pretty important in BSC And not, unsurprisingly, the DJ at Club Tropicana.

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