Review: Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse

If you haven’t yet heard about Inua Ellams’ hit play Barber Shop Chronicles’, then you’ve either been living under a rock or indeed not in London at all. The show, which first launched in 2017 celebrated it’s 250th performance recently. It has sold out the National Theatre (twice), with acclaimed performances internationally including successful tours of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

SO what makes a play about a Barber Shop such a hit? Well, it’s because it’s not just a play about the obvious. Ellams is a genius who manages to weave everything from immigration, multiculturalism, African culture and identity into an inter-sectional mix that is both uplifting and thought-provoking. He also manages to do so with sound humour and a dope Afrobeats soundtrack, that literally makes you want to join in with the cast.

Ellams says the inspiration for the play came after “being handed a flyer about a pilot project to teach Barbers how to counsel.” Such was the compelling and far-reaching impact of conversations in these shops that the project not only wanted to teach the Barbers counselling but was also proposing the counselling sessions take place at the Barber Shop.
Barber Shops much like African women’s hairdressers are locations which often feel like therapy centres where customers come not only to cut (or make) their hair, but to have a chat about everything from football to culture, jobs, family life and everything else in between.

Tom Moutchi and Micah Balfour in Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse. Pic: Marc Brenner

Even if we (as customers) don’t realise it, a form of relationship develops over time with someone who is essentially a stranger whom you meet with monthly or fortnightly as the case may be. This relationship often evolves into a loyal sense of belonging i.e. cutting or making your hair at the same place; often with the same person over and over again. There is an implicit sense of trust and confidentiality that what is said within those four walls does not escape those four walls and within that space, you can be your true self- no pretence, no judgement.

For Africans in the diaspora, these spaces are even much more than that. As immigrants struggling to navigate the murky waters of the country where they’ve made their new home, the Barber Shop has offered for generations, a mini community where Africans and Afro-Caribbeans can converge for great banter, advice, debates, to reconnect with their roots and sometimes, to just chill. It is against this vibrant scene that Barber Shop Chronicles is set. It’s the reason why films (think Barbershop) and one of Britain’s most successful Black Sit Coms Desmond’s was made about it.

David Webber in Barber Shop Chronicles at the Roundhouse. Pic: Marc Brenner

For its run at the iconic Roundhouse in London, Ellams’ superb storytelling is brought to life via a multi-talented cast, with stage designs by Director Rae Smith, replicating Barber Shops from Lagos to Johannesburg to Peckham. The subtle but thoughtful lighting design by Jack Knowles brings an intimate feel to the play, drawing the audience into the conversations spanning across continents.

This is what sets this play apart from previous depictions of the Barber Shop. It is not set in one but several Barber Shops, showing a world that is far more interconnected than we see or think. No topic is off limits- from the impacts of colonialism and how African culture is gradually being eroded, to black masculinity and inter-racial relationships. This is one play that will leave you (whether you’re White or Black) pondering on the various nuances of race, black culture and immigration.

It is important (especially during these uncertain times) for these stories to be told and heard and it was great to see a wide ranging audience at the Roundhouse. It is only by listening and understanding the ‘other’s’ perspective that we can begin to appreciate our differences, respect one another and at least attempt to live harmoniously. This is why Independent Producers such as Fuel who are willing to push the boundaries to bring these stories to the public are needed.

The Barber Shop Chronicles is showing at London’s Roundhouse from 18th July – 24th August and then will embark on a UK tour. See tour dates below.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre
September 26th -28th 2019
https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/

Oxford Playhouse
October 9th – 12th 2019 www.oxfordplayhouse.com

Eden Court, Inverness
October 16th – 19th 2019
https://eden-court.co.uk/

Edinburgh Lyceum
October 23rd – 9th November 2019
https://lyceum.org.uk/

Nuffield Southampton Theatres
November 13th – 16th 2019www.nstheatres.co.uk

Leeds Playhouse 
November 20th – 23rd 2019
https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/

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