Barber Shop Chronicles – Oxford Playhouse

From the National Theatre to a national tour, Inua Ellam’s Barber Shop Chronicles highlights important messages. The play explores diaspora and masculinity within black culture, leaping between several barber shops from around the globe – England, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa – over the course of a single day. With such heavy topics to cover, and with no interval, it would be easy to think that Barber Shop is an arduous 1h45.

But from the moment I walked into the theatre it was obvious that this was going to be an enjoyable evening. Club bangers and the full cast fill the stage, along with audience members (in this case, a rather large school group dancing along and taking selfies with the cast). This pre-show tradition has existed from the start of its run at the National. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have arrived just shy of lights down. This vibrancy was maintained throughout – and it really was the music that drew the entire performance together.

It provided a cultural grounding throughout, as each scene change was accompanied by singing and dancing specific to the new location. The mix of African chanting, call and response, and recognisable British rap was so joyous you wanted to dance along with them – I genuinely struggled to keep still in my seat. The set is also clever, transforming with ease; illuminated signs specific to each country’s barber shop, and a glorious hollow metal globe hanging from the ceiling lit up with the outline of the current location. Each setting was so brilliantly accurate, so strongly placed with a sense of national identity, and yet this only served to highlight the similarities running between every place and man.

Inua Ellams’ writing brings everything together beautifully. Threads of stories weave between each shop: references to friends and family that the audience realises we’ve already met, stories told in the same way, and the same joke translated into different cultural contexts, culminating in “an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar”. It’s all about unity. It’s about loneliness and pressure and family. The use of multi-roling is perhaps an obvious way to draw all these threads across countries, but it worked absolutely perfectly.

The threads are clever, yes, but they all wind back to the London shop, where the central plot of Mohammed Mansaray’s Samuel, angry at his father-figure for the absence of his actual father, is the weakest part of the entire performance. It’s a pity. The very ending too, with a round up of the play’s themes of toxic masculinity and what it means to be a “strong black man”, is so explicit that it feels clunky.

Special mention goes to Demmy Ladipo for his range, depth, and hilarity, and Eric Shango as Tanaka – a relatively minor role but one that any Gen Z-er can identify with. Tanaka is played with a manner eloquent, impactful, and with a frustration that hits you in your core. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed the discomfort of the sea of elderly white faces in the audience.

Overall, a good balance of humour and seriousness from a talented cast.

 

GUEST REVIEWER: Catrin Haberfield

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