I couldn’t imagine a better venue for Inua Ellam’s The Barber Shop Chronicles than the Roundhouse. Traditionally a space for music gigs, this in-the-round theatre brings a carnival vibe to this colourful, bombastic show, creating an experience that will not be forgotten.
The party atmosphere starts early. Before the show begins, the audience is invited to join the performers on stage and dance to a thumping selection of pop and hip hop tunes. The joy this generates is contagious and by the time everyone is seated, smiling faces fill the auditorium.
From here, bold and clever choreography and voice-work takes us from scene to scene, each one set in a barber shop of varying sophistication, but all just as important to their local community; whether in Peckham, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Harare or Johannesburg. The Barber Shop Chronicles probes, portrays and celebrates the place that the traditional barber shop holds in African communities across the globe, as a place for men to congregate, work, loiter, converse and debate.
Rae Smith’s set is somehow simultaneously barebones and lavish. Under a large, glowing wireframe globe and a circle of skillfully designed billboards for each shop (which helpfully inform viewers where in the world each scene is set) the cast roll chairs, trolleys and other accoutrements of the barber shop into place – and each shop has its own distinct and authentic feel.
The stories told, some of which intersect, differ while sharing common themes; broken families, ambitions for a better life, the evolution and disappearance of culture. Notions of “maleness” are explored and interrogated with results that are moving without being overly preachy or melodramatic. These men share a work ethic, a desire to be better and a longing for a sense of place, as well as a passion for Chelsea FC as they approach a major Champions League match against Barcelona. The Barber Shop Chronicles shows that the commonalities between us are more precious and important than our differences.
Bijan Sheibani’s direction is pacy and energetic, with performers comfortably filling the ample space of the Roundhouse. Each character is performed with earthy authenticity, although there were times when their mic’d up voices were muffled by the sound system, occasionally making the dialogue difficult to follow.
At its new home in the Roundhouse, The Barber Shop Chronicles at is a unique and vibrant experience, to be cherished and celebrated. Poet and artist Inua Ellam tells stories that are true to his experience of the African diaspora, yet are relatable and entertaining to anybody. This production pulses to the beat of the drum and of the heart.