In the case of the National Theatre’s Barber Shop Chronicles, it was the late nineties rap that started blaring out of the not insubstantial sound system about a minute after I found my seat that sold it to me. This was, from about fifteen minutes before it even started, a production that I was totally into.
Barber Shop Chronicles, written by Inua Ellams, tells the interlocking stories of several barber shops, in London and across Africa, and the groups of black men who populate them. As a white woman this is about as far away from a world that I naturally understand as it’s possible to get but the genius of Ellams’ beautiful writing is that he made me understand it. The universality he draws out of this very specific - very male - world is astonishing. But at no point does universality translate into blandness. Quite the contrary. The writing is vibrant, diverse, funny, sincere and with real emotional clout. The structure and plot are so satisfyingly well thought through. The characters are real and relatable, even those who play relatively minor roles. The range of dialects included works so well - even if some of the resulting dialogue was technically lost on me, I still understood it.
Thematically, this play is incredibly rich and rewarding. As alluded to, language, how it evolves, what it means at different times and to different people, is writ large. The legacy of history at a personal and national level is there too. The universality of the human experience I’ve already mentioned but is explored so cleverly (I shan’t spoil it, but watch out for the recurring-in-various-dialects-exposing-various-forms-of-local-rivalry joke). Ultimately, the most powerful exploration is of the idea of the ‘strong, black male’ and how that is both a) bollocks and b) incredibly damaging to the excellent human beings who fall into its trap. The genius of Ellams’ writing even here is to make this exploration relatable to anyone in any racial and gender demographic (speaking of which, it was also much to this production’s credit that the audience wasn’t exclusively middle aged, middle class, white people for a change). The payoff is that this piece connects so well with its audience. It’s the sort of connection you can viscerally feel as you sit there. It does not happen often and is huge testament to how fantastic Barber Shop Chronicles is as a piece of writing.
It is aided and abetted by a knock out production, the first thing I’ve ever reviewed in the Dorfman where I’m not going to complain about sightlines! Staged in the round/square with the audience inches away from the action (sit in the pit for the most immersive experience), the design is great: simple but effective with a couple of really clever touches. Designer Rae Smith has constructed a whole world of barber shops using only a few props - barbers’ chairs and kit towers - which are moved around by the cast to set up the different locations, emphasised by a giant wire globe suspended over the stage on which the relevant locations light up when we travel there. It works incredibly well. Music director Michael Henry has done fantastic things with the show’s soundtrack: both the incidental music he selects (plus a million points for including No Diggity) and the live sung music, also used to indicate place, are evocative, exciting and cleverly used. The accompanying choreography - especially the sequences with capes - is great too. And, although the production could stand to be ten minutes shorter in my view, Bijan Sheibani’s direction is excellent. The sense of fun and always just restrained chaos he creates is infectious.
Completing the trinity of excellence is a kick ass cast. It’s great to see yet another piece in 2017’s trend for playing up ensemble acting where that decision totally plays off. The whole (smallish) cast of Barber Shop Chronicles is excellent and the play is often at its most exciting when they’re all on stage working together. There are a couple of standouts too. I found Patrice Naiambana’s work across his multiple characters consistently excellent, but as the sad and conflicted Simphiwe struggling with the legacy of Apartheid in the play’s South African thread he is outstanding (and gets some of the best material too). Conquering all before him though is Cyril Nri who is just devastating as Emmanuel in the central London-set plot line. Emmanuel’s plot delivers the play’s biggest gotcha moment (which I won’t spoil, obviously, save to say that it cut through my heart like a knife through butter) and Nri both handles it and builds up to it perfectly. It’s actually only one line that gives everything away but the amount of emotion Nri gets into that one line is incredible. I am literally crying as I write this because even thinking about that line has this effect (honestly, it’s becoming problematic). It’s a quiet, understated, absolute gem of a performance.
Barber Shop Chronicles is amazing, in summary, and I would urge anyone who has eyes, ears and a heart to go and see it. The emotional, thematic and geographic sweep and ambition of this piece is huge and ambitious - and it nails it every time. A real must see.
Barber Shop Chronicles plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until January 9th, though there is only ticket availability on January 5th. Quick march to the NT box office!