The Barber Shop Chronicles, UK

Review: Jan Hallam

Opening night of the Perth Festival carries with it an extra dollop of excitement. It’s a marker for the local Arts’ community – the year has just got serious.

Not that the crowd packing the Octagon Theatre cared – they were there to party and the crew from the Barber Shop Chronicles, where the funky soundtrack of African ska and hip-hop had us bopping to our seats, showed us the way.

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For some, they weren’t in their seats for long. It was into the half-a-dozen barber’s chairs on stage getting a short back and sides, metaphorically speaking. The music was loud, the laughter was louder, there was fun in the air.

It went on a good 20 minutes, time enough for those safely settled in their seats to explore the characters bouncing around – they were a slice of life. Young, punky, older, wiser, ebullient, broken. All fascinating.

As is human nature we are drawn to several individuals and follow them for the duration. I fell a little in love with Samuel (Bayo Gbadamosi) – even in this carnivalesque entrée, he was focused, dedicated, engaging with the person in front of him. It would turn out that in the course of this intriguing production, his particular narrative would be all those things. Winston (Martins Imhangbe) was similarly cool, detached, working the DJ Decks.

So, what’s the Barber Shop Chronicles all about?

On the premise that “Africans don’t go to the pub to talk about things, they go to the barber’s” it is a pastiche of the difficult, troubled and traumatic moments in the lives of individuals from various African cultures wherever they find themselves in the world – some of these moments are marked by history, others are deeply private.

It is the dream of writer Inua Ellams, whose previous work crosses boundaries of poetry, theatre and visual arts. It has been brought dramatically together by director Bujan Sheibani and produced by London’s National Theatre where its first outing garnered rave reviews.

A spinning globe lit up with blue lights stops at Lagos in Nigeria, Peckham in London, Accra in Ghana, Kampala in Uganda, Johannesburg in South Africa, and Harare in Zimbabwe, and we are drawn into the lives of men struggling and surviving with style and panache.

The themes are strongly political, with many of the characters resigned to a life of struggle, a few angry with the betrayal of revolutionary leaders who promised to deliver a better life. Others laugh, if only ironically, at their existence as African men in post-colonial societies.

Sport is a unifier but so too are the burning issue of racism, corruption, hopes raised, hopes dashed. Some moments are deeply moving, other’s laugh-out-loud funny.

My concerns with the production are partly of my own making. I could neither hear nor understand some of the dialogue. It’s surely fast-paced and at times heavily accented, but when discussion is centred on language and miss-stepped communication, it’s rather awkward being a victim of the narrative rather than a participator in it.

It is also a long production – nearly two hours without interval – and, with intermittent gaps in understanding, this can seem quite a bit longer.

Nonetheless, as this production settles in the psyche, a deeper appreciation of the experience of Barber Shop Chronicles takes shape. Remote headlines become a personal pain and, in some cases, a wonderful triumph.

Barber Shop Chronicles is at the Octagon Theatre until February 18. 

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