mon 17/06/2024

Barber Shop Chronicles, Roundhouse review - riotous theatre at its best | reviews, news & interviews

Barber Shop Chronicles, Roundhouse review - riotous theatre at its best

Barber Shop Chronicles, Roundhouse review - riotous theatre at its best

Must-see show takes place in barber shops in London, Lagos, Accra, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg

Revelations at the Three Kings barber shop© Mark Brenner

Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu) runs Three Kings Barbers in London. His assistant, Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray), is the son of his erstwhile business partner, who is currently in jail. Emmanuel is boss, surrogate father and — occasionally — verbal punching bag: Sam is a whizz with the shears and just as cutting with his tongue. 

It's not just London in which Inua Ellam's riotous play Barber Shop Chronicles — newly transferred to the Roundhouse from the National Theatre — takes place. Scenes in barber shops in Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Harare and Johannesburg intercut the action in London, where customers are equally troubled, flawed and rambunctious. Some stories are tragic: an alcoholic father laments leaving his six-year-old son in England to return to South Africa. Some are bombastic, such as the businessman returning to Lagos with a gold watch and plenty to show for it ("God is good!"). Others provide (sometimes dark, often bombastic) humour: Bad Boy weighs up the differences between dating black women and white women (“a black woman can get away with murder because it will be tracked down to a bald woman in India”). Back in London, successive revelations take us through Sam's rebellion against Emmanuel, friction with his friend Winston (played by Micah Balfour) and an epic football final between Chelsea and Barcelona.Barbershop Chronicles at the Roundhouse As an ensemble show, the drama builds cumulatively. Scenes that have at their heart questions around what it means to be black, male and African — or second- or third-generation African, which provides another source of tension — are interspersed with musical interludes. Acapella songs from the cast take us between cities; dance numbers to a soundtrack that is both local and international move us between themes: Burna Boy, Skepta, Skales, Fuse ODG, Blackstreet. There's even a joke about Eve. This proves the kind of identity that is porous, that passes down generations and across borders yet claims a sense of belonging — much like getting a cut at the same place or supporting Chelsea whether you’re from Ghana or Gabon. It’s a unifying kind of loyalty, swiftly recognised. 

The Roundhouse provides an exceptional stage. Played in the round, the action is fully three-sixty, dynamic and larger than life. It's inclusive and democratic. Half an hour before the show begins, a carnivalesque version of a shop opens on the stage. Audience members who get involved are fussed over and become part of the action. Design by Rae Smith and lighting by Jack Knowles admirably plump up the space, focussing as sharply on private, individual interchanges as large, multi-character, multi-narrative scenes. Above the central stage, a large globe with a mirror ball centre spins slowly, lighting up individual countries to show where we are.

Characters, music, jokes and attitudes slip between these dispersed locations — notably a joke about three guys, three beers and some flies. Nearly everyone is out of the country of their birth or at least out of step with each other. The play opens with a man desperately pounding on a barber's door at 6am because he has an interview at 9am (when the barber's usually opens) and needs three hours to negotiate the Lagos traffic. A DJ from Zimbabwe loses the right — according to his barber — to rail again Western black music in favour of the homegrown variety because he fled the country when times got tough. He's a lesser Zimbabwean for it. The bigger question is about being wholly oneself. Ethiopia, it is pointed out, was never colonised. Its 13-month calnedar puts it out of step with the world but in step with itself. Whether emollience to the foreign imports or artefacts of colonial control should be characterised as weakness or as diplomacy depends on your perspective — and sense of humour.

Counsellor, friend, father, teacher, mentor — the barber plays many roles. Things for them are usually fine, even when they're definitely not, because the client's wellbeing is paramount. Time and again, customers who cannot pay are given free cuts. Sometimes this is paid back in kind, sometimes the debt is not taken as a debt, sometimes other consequences take hold. The essential question for Samuel is — where do you go for comfort in times of stress, and what happens when that place is the epicentre of the fracture?

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