Barber Shop Chronicles proves a talking point with its food for thought

Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo by Mark Brenner.
Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo by Mark Brenner.

A touring production of Inua Ellams’ ground-breaking play Barber Shop Chronicles has opened at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, writes Alan Payne.

It is based on conversations recorded by the playwright in barber shops in a variety of African countries, as well as in this country.

Taking place on a single day the scenes shift between Peckham, south London, and Lagos, Harare, Kampala, Accra and Johannesburg.

Twelve actors play 30 parts – juggling changes in accent and dialect as well as character. The result is a kaleidoscopic picture of black masculinity – revealed through the intimacy of the barber shop environment. It’s both hugely ambitious and endearingly modest – the lack of the definite article in

the title indicating that we are being presented with selected fragments.

As the play develops, a number of themes emerge – the relationship between fathers and sons, the treatment of children, the complex needs of companionship and sexuality, the global passion for football, the legacy of colonialism, issues surrounding language and identity – and the links between the characters

become increasingly apparent. All this is delivered through layers of humour and banter and physicality – but always with an eye on accuracy and truth, never purely for entertainment.

Some of the details are unforgettable: the man who remembers being so poor as a child that he accepted payment for others to racially insult him; a man’s anger at Nelson Mandela’s betrayal of black South Africans; the confusion of a young actor who is auditioning for the part of a strong black male; the moment of sad enlightenment for the young man angry with his ‘uncle’ who all the time has been protecting him from knowing the truth behind his father’s imprisonment.

The whole cast act with energy and commitment. The singing and dancing between each of the scenes is enormously invigorating. A striking set enables us to know the location of each scene and the time of day. The play was greeted by an enthusiastic audience with the laughter of recognition, but also thoughtfulness and respect.

Barber Shop Chronicles is on until Saturday, June 1.