‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ examines the role of the barber shop in the lives of African men. It portrays barber shops as ‘like a pub’ to them. One character explains that it is a place for them to come together and have important conversations they might not have elsewhere. To me, this show is split into two sections separated by a wide gulf of quality. The first two-thirds were quite ineffective, while the last third tied the play together brilliantly.
The production establishes an exuberant tone from the start. As the audience comes in, the cast are already on stage in the barber shop, dancing with feeling and getting to the shop’s business. They bring audience members on stage and pretend to cut their hair, calling out to the audience and making comments on things. I liked this-it got my defences up and then surprised me. The music and dancing were so joyous that I reluctantly, but with a sense of gratitude, relaxed and allowed my heart to be set free. Though I’m not black, I felt the welcome, felt my walls break down and was excited to see what the characters would say and do.
When Act I began, I was disappointed. The cast kept the energy too high for too long and were constantly animated. It was hard for me to keep my own energy and enthusiasm as high for so long. The first act became a really tiring experience. It was like the cast were high on life, with words spilling from a mini printer in their throats and falling to the floor, wasted and unread. All the fascinating things they were talking about: feelings of belonging and unbelonging, masculinity, ambition and work, among many were lost. I didn’t think the barber shop was a great place to discuss things, I felt as though the cast needed to have a cool drink and read the script properly.
Yet! In Act they did lots of things they didn’t do in Act 1. They slowed down, gave each other and the audience space to appreciate their lines, and it was like the air was sucked out of the theatre. I was holding my breath. I could hear people blowing their noses and crying. The cast’s characters were well-rounded, especially Anthony Ofoegbu as Emmanuel and Mohammed Mansaray as Samuel. The stakes felt real and high. Act I was tied in excellently because Act 2 revealed the emotion that coexists with the cheerfulness of Act I. The truthful mood felt a bit forced in parts after Act I, but overall the cast hit it out of the park with their acting and it was a display of stunning passion. Script-wise, I didn’t like how many short vignettes there were. The lights coming up constantly for more scenes felt very repetitive.
The music (Michael Henry), sound (Gareth Fry), lighting (Jack Knowles) and set design (Rae Smith) have got to be seen to be believed. For me, these were the best parts of the production. The show is set in six different barbershops, and these four worked together dynamically to create settings of unexpected emotions and atmospheres that don’t feel like they can be experienced in a usual British setting. The point, it seems, is that they can’t. The production design produces a true emotional reawakening and asks you to seek out where your own ‘barber shop’ might be.
Act I seriously dragged down a play that had so much going for it.
‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh till November 9. Tickets: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/barber-shop-chronicles