Harry Bignell reviews Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse Theatre in Camden.
As the distinctively spherical stands of the aptly named Roundhouse Theatre in Camden fill, we late-comers are greeted by the blare of foot-tapping beat which had already enticed multiple audience members to join the actors already milling about on stage for a dance. The casual, comfortable air feels immediately welcoming and the seemingly spontaneous moment when Candy starts playing and actors and audience alike fall into step in the familiar routine gets this show off to a great start.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a lively tapestry of stories spanning the African continent and following a group of men to London; weaving together stories of identity and belonging from characters both in their home country and outside of it.
Ellams’ acclaimed play opens in a shop in Lagos where a young man convinces the barber to open early to make him look more ‘streamline’ for his upcoming interview to be a driver. Commonalities are weaved throughout the performance, giving each shop a reassuringly familiar feel through tropes like the rickety generator you can almost convince yourself you hear rumbling in corner.
In the same way these commonalities are mimicked from shop to shop throughout, so too is the atmosphere which transcends geographies and boundaries, presenting barbershops from Lagos to London as havens for African men of all ages to argue and agree in equal measure about politics, people and football.
The actors transition from location to location through song or dance, making the episodic performance feel smooth and unified as opposed to stilted or fragment. The music is a melodious mix of acapella songs in a wonderfully complementary collection of tenors and bases, interspersed with a modern soundtrack.
Far from feeling like disparate moments in differing time zones and geographies, these stories share elements that make them familiar to each other, yet also explore uniquely contextual and cultural differences. Each stories is revisited throughout the play, and the storyline around Samuel, a young and angry man working in what used to be his father’s barbershop in London unravels towards a climax at the end which feels sad and satisfying in equal measure.
This play feels important, especially in light of the current political climate in the UK, touching as it does on themes of subversive racism and structural racism. To the average (and dare I say it, ignorant) white British viewer like myself, this play felt like a wonderful insight to cultures so dissimilar from my own, yet evidently so amusingly familiar for so many in the surrounding audience. The atmosphere created in the Roundhouse is fantastic and will leave you with a real buzz, as well as a lot to consider.
Barber Shop Chronicles is as heart-warming as it is heart-rending in places, as thought-provoking as it is playful. If you do one thing with the rest of this quickly cooling summer, get yourself tickets to see this play.