In 2010, playwright Inua Ellams was handed a flyer about a project designed to teach barbers the very basics in counselling. From this began an exploration of the intimacy of barbershops across the globe and the openness that they bring out of men of every culture, involving six weeks of research travelling through Africa, resulting in 60 hours of recordings taken from different barber shops across the continent. This was eventually compacted into the riotous, fast-paced and honest comedy drama, Barber Shop Chronicles, running at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from 23rd October – 9th November.
The play is an hour and 45 minutes of intense honesty, trust and brotherhood, and doesn’t waste much time before plunging into the thematic deep end. This is remedied before the piece even starts, with the most relaxed and genuinely fun pre-show I may have ever witnessed, in which the company’s charisma radiates throughout the entire building as they invite the audience members on the stage for a dance and a ‘haircut’, making it seem like we’re merely just visiting the barbershops again.
Barber Shop Chronicles follows a host of different characters across the entire world, weaving through a variety of themes constantly considered bigger than anyone, such as race, class, sexuality, and predominantly, masculinity. Bijan Sheibani’s directing has a certain messiness that, to me, seems purposeful in illustrating the frustration and mental health issues they talk about as black men in the modern day, facing racism and toxic masculinity constantly. The fluidity and and tightness of the company’s movement was exhilarating to watch and a testament to the love and trust they all clearly had in one another.
However, at times the chaos and rebelliousness of the scene transitions and the placement of them in the script often disconnected the audience from the action, bouncing from scene to scene and story to story, although there were signs telling us where we were, it was as if we were given enough just about enough time to start settling in, before being jolted back and forth, having to remember what happened before. This may have been a Brechtian-esque method of reminding the audience to focus on why the action was happening as opposed to what was happening (which would make sense considering the company sat in chairs around the stairs instead of going offstage, disconnecting actor from character).
The piece boasts a stellar cast, who provide brilliant comedic timing, intelligent character development and sensitive approaches to the topics they discuss. Anthony Ofoegbu is especially captivating as frustrated barber shop owner Emmanuel, showcasing his ability and emotional range in every scene.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a joyous, globetrot of love and kindness amongst men. A piece that’s more important now than ever, it leaves the audience thinking about why men are only able to be open in such places and how monumental these everyday things can seem to others. “Even in the darkness, the barbershop is our lighthouse.”
Main Image Credit: Marc Brenner