Six barbershops in six countries. Twelve actors playing thirty roles. A story with concurrent scenes on different continents and secret links between the characters. Barber Shop Chronicles may be the most narratively complicated play you’ll see this year, but as well a being a head-scratcher, it’s a compelling, energetic and insightful piece of theatre.
It’s a party when you enter the auditorium, loud music playing, the actors dancing and inviting the audience on stage for ‘haircuts’. This high energy continues as the party segues into the actual show, a series of vignettes set in barber shops in five different African countries. The main storyline takes place out of Africa, in a London barbershop where Samuel (the excellent Fisayo Akinade) uncovers the truth about his father’s imprisonment. This is the only real dramatic thread, however. The majority of the show is about men being men, interacting and bonding, discussing everything from football to racial politics to why Jamaicans drink more than Africans.
Barber Shop Chronicles is clever in many ways, slowly revealing the links between the characters and stories, but there’s a lack of focus that slowly drains some of the production’s energy. Inua Ellams’ script is bursting with dynamic dialogue and authentic characterisation, but – running for an hour and forty-five minutes without an interval – one’s attention span tires from the continual jumps between locations and conversation topics.
It does occasionally feel that Ellams is trying to cram too many discussion points into his representation of the African male experience. Talk of race, homophobia and cultural differences are initially enthralling, but by the time we reach a lengthy diatribe against Nelson Mandela, there’s a longing for more character drama. It’s a shame, because there’s excellent acting on show. Hammed Animashaun in particular, playing four different roles, is a true chameleon and his mid-point monologue is the show’s gut-bursting highlight.
Amid the political discussion, there’s a terrifically funny show here and Barber Shop Chronicles is at its best when its astute characterisation allows for natural levity. There are also brilliant transitions between the scenes, music pumping, the actors whizzing across the stage on barbershop chairs. The energy is so high, the dialogue so believable, the occasional rambling moments are forgiven. This is unique, relevant theatre and well worth seeing.
Barber Shop Chronicles will be playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29th July. Tickets available here.