Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – until Saturday 23rd March 2019
Reviewed by Julie Noller
I’ll begin with the one thing that was weighing on me before I even arrived at the theatre, at nearly 2 hours long without an interval, would my mind be actively engaged for that length of time? If this is putting you off, honestly; don’t let those doubts win out. Be warned; don’t bank on any running times going to plan for now you’re on African time! The fast paced action you will somehow follow and understand totally and the only disappointment you will feel is when it’s time to leave the theatre and go home.
Barber Shop Chronicles was written by self confessed poet Inua Ellams, who after receiving a flyer back in 2010 all about how barbers should be taught the basics in counselling started to develop and the very idea of how much impact barbers have on everyday lives. How the men would lounge in their local barbers around his home in Peckham, this revived memories of his early days in Nigeria. What began life as 60 hours of recordings from researching barbers shops around Africa and London was slowly whittled down and polished into those nearly 2 hours of dissecting one day and life in six cities.
The action begins before the play even starts, there’s music, there’s dancing so take your seat early or you may miss a treat. A theme that repeats throughout; it bonds the stories and characters together, for isn’t music and dance a sort of universal language that speaks to our very soul? The interaction with the audience is fantastic and watching men and women pulled up out of their seats before they’ve had a chance to remove coats and relax is interesting, are we an audience or just part of the performance?
The Globe, no one can fail to notice, how you choose to interpret it is down to the individual. It hangs suspended from the ceiling as a central object. It’s educational, cities are lit up when it’s their segment in the story. Not everyone has a great grasp for geography. But is it there as a reminder that we are all living together on one planet, Earth. How we may leave our homes, where we were born, but how big or small the world feels, it’s people who make it so. The rope lights that are spread out across the upper floors reminded me of the World Wide Web or perhaps telephone lines how they make time and miles appear meaningless. Around the world we can still be connected, regardless of what we may believe. Barber Shop Chronicles is so full of ‘banging tunes’ you can’t help but move in your seat, wanting to jump up. You’ll be smiling throughout, it’s certainly fast paced the way the set can be switched around to reflect all six cities. This contrasts brilliantly against the day to day existence within the barber shops, where life is so chilled you wonder how they survive. This is only a small cast of twelve actors, most take multiple roles, leaving the arena and changing costumes. This does not impact with your enjoyment in any way.
The concept of the barber shops at first I found puzzling, perhaps because I’m a woman? But what I came away believing is that simply visiting the barber shop is for a majority of these men the equivalent of women getting together for a coffee, it’s to chat, to share laughter and tears. And put the world of politics and football to rights! My sad moment has to be how self sacrificial the barber can be; Anthony Ofoegbu as Emmanuel portrays this with great empathy and perfection in how he stands back and allows the petulance and almost toddleresque rants of Mohammed Mansaray as Samuel wash over him. His sadness indeed becomes apparent at the very end and it is a heartbreaking moment as he confesses after being ribbed throughout about how no one ever sees his wife. In a simple statement we discover how his wife died only months earlier, how do they not know? These people who visit daily, these friends. How much we are caught up in our own lives and fail to truly see those closest to us.
It’s not all poignant moments there is certainly many humorous moments, some so incredibly subtle it will take a keen eye to see them. My laugh out loud moment has to be an audience member being offered a crisp, almost as if they were sitting waiting in a chair to be called forward for a cut. The debate rages on throughout should English be the dialect of choice or should Pidgin be used, not once did I feel confused by the switch in language. The overall story is extremely easy to follow. It brings to life an understanding of being human. To witness the stories develop is poetic justice. So many morals interwoven it’s not hard hitting but in it’s own way it’s sharp. London appears to be the connecting city, London we like to see portrayed as cosmopolitan with an eclectic culture. Sometimes in life the one father figure you have may just be your barber, he knows what an important role he has. But who will be the listening ear for him. If offered a chance to watch Barber Shop Chronicles again, well I wouldn’t hesitate.