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Barber Shop Chronicles

Richard Watts

Though occasionally earnest, Inua Ellams’ charming play has wit and heart in abundance.
Barber Shop Chronicles

Photo credit: Toni Wilkinson, Perth Festival.

Masculinity, parenthood, nation states, success and failure, the evolution of language and the fraught business of being a man; these topics and more are explored with a compelling mix of comedy and drama in British-Nigerian playwright and poet’s Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles at Perth Festival.

Inspired by Ellam’s discovery that British barbers were being trained as counsellors in order to address the stigma of mental illness and male suicide, and based in part on recordings the playwright made in London, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, the play skips from barber shop to barber shop around the world to explore the diversity of the African male, and the universal nature of men globally.

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At a time when the Australian media and Federal government seem obsessed with representing members of the African diaspora as an amorphous, dangerous, homogenous mass, Barber Shop Chronicles presents an alternative – or rather, alternatives.

Street-smart, book learned, braggadocious, cocky, angry, hurting, confident, grieving, drunk; the men of Ellams’ play are as diverse as every man – and a welcome antidote to the stereotypes and clichés which abound in screenplays and scripts the world over.

Scenes are introduced by songs, while a wire globe suspended above the stage depicts the city and country each scene is set in. London, notably, has no song; it is our default setting, our default state.

Colourful barber shop signs and a clock whose hands whirl back and forth to show us the time zone in which each scene is set, offer further indications as to place and setting. A much-anticipated football match between Barcelona and Chelsea, and diverse retellings of a joke are the threads which stitch the play together, while dance sequences featuring flapping barber’s capes help bridge scenes and tonal shifts.

The subject matter is often uncomfortable. Men discuss the sorts of women they desire, and their reasons why (there are no female characters in the play – on stage at least; this is a place for secret men’s business, hair tonic and all) or the differences between the memorialisation of the Holocaust versus the silence around the slave trade. At other times the comedy is broad, the characters rich and engaging.

The carefully layered script gradually creates links between sequences and stories, such as a conversation linking the need for a Pidgin-Spanish dictionary to a discussion about various racist epithets and which are considered worst. Narrative threads allow us to see returning characters in a different light, which each shift in proceedings providing new perspectives and sometimes painful new insights.  

Late in the play, a young man, Ethan (Kwami Odoom) enters the London barber shop run by Emmanuel (the faultless Cyril Nri). He’s preparing for an audition; his character will be a ‘strong black man’. He doesn’t know how to play the role.

The scene comes as a coda to the dramas which have gone before. It feels a little contrived; a little too obviously stitching together and resolving the various plots and scenes and characters we’ve seen in the previous 100 minutes. But thanks to the pair’s beautifully judged performances, it’s also a deeply moving resolution.   

Barber Shop Chronicles is not a perfect piece of theatre; it feels occasionally earnest but it has enormous heart.

4 stars

Barber Shop Chronicles
A Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production
By Inua Ellams
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Jack Knowles
Movement Director: Aline David
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Music Director: Michael Henry
Staff Director: Stella Odunlami
Dramaturgs: Sebastian Born, Tom Lyons
Octagon Theatre, Crawley
9-18 February 2018

Perth Festival
www.perthfestival.com.au
9 February – 4 March 2018

Richard Watts travelled to Perth as a guest of Perth Festival.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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