Though occasionally earnest, Inua Ellams’ charming play has wit and heart in abundance.
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.
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.
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
9 February – 4 March 2018
Richard Watts travelled to Perth as a guest of Perth Festival.