Barber Shop Chronicles
This is a production full of energy, passion and joy set to a riotously enjoyable soundtrack.
I strongly advise getting to the show early, as you'll find cast members roaming around the auditorium greeting and shaking hands with everyone. You get to hang out with the cast while the DJ spins up a series of banging tunes, and your are invited to go up onto the stage to sit in a barber's chair or join in throwing some shapes in dance. The throb of music sets the tone from the beginning - this is going to be a fun ride.
The action moves from a barber's shop in Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra over the course of a single day, Peckam being the recurring location and story. The barber's shop is special in African culture - it's a news forum, a political speakers corner, a local hotspot, and sometimes acts as a confession box, a pulpit or a football stadium.
This is a strikingly effective way to tell many stories, and to explore a good number of 'difficult' issues. The underlying thread is about the vulnerability of men whose culture considers it a sign of weakness to talk about how they are really feeling, which of course can adversely affect their mental health.
In the barber's shop we are party to the stories of abandonment, absent or violent fathers, the death of a wife, and the pain of exile or alienation in a foreign country. Some react with macho bravado, or bury themselves in the tribalism and comradeship of football.
There is a clever thread of common stories binding together the different geographical settings, with the different-but-the-same story of a fly in the beers of three men from different backgrounds, the ongoing tableau of the barber shop clientele following the Chelsea-Barcelona cup final.
The set is a striking, both down at heel and glamorous, with signs illuminating to signal where we are in the world, and easy transition from intimate scenes to a stage full of rollicking, exuberant dances of joy.
But there is also great diversity in the anecdotes, and as the globe above the stages lights up different locations and revolves, we learn about how the evolving language of Pidgin shapes culture and understanding in a post-colonial country with diverse native languages, and opinions about the Mandelas and Robert Mugabe that are far from the typical European's reading.
Each scene moves to the next with a burst of song and music, and an energetic ballet of barbers chairs, gyrating bodies and swirling barber's capes. And there is an achingly simple, transformative effect when the barbers turn the hand mirror onto their customers' faces: joy and happiness at seeing a new version of themselves to show to the outside world.
This is an illuminating look at what it means to be an African man, and at how just talking about things, the sharing of feelings that is enabled by the forum of the barber's is revealing, healing and often cathartic. All the elements that make a great production are there - a well crafted story, assured direction, choreography, lighting and of course sound.
This play deals with some heavy issues, but at the same time is a life-affirming and joyous journey of discovery for the audience as well as the characters on stage. At its climax, there is a rocking song to clap the actors off the stage. This is both a flamboyant and intimate spectacle which lights up a cold October evening. Get along to this, be sure to arrive early, and enjoy it.
4 stars ★★★★
23 October - 9 November 2019
Tuesday - Saturday
£16 - £33
MATINEES from 26 October, 2pm
Wednesday and Saturday
£14 - £29
Running time: 1hr 45 minutes, no interval
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