Words by Shay Awoyemi
When I first heard about ‘Barbershop Chronicles’, I was both excited to see something I can relate to well being represented on stage, but doubtful that a stage production could capture the subtle happenings of a barbershop. I didn’t think that the stage was the right place for such a work as this to be displayed. However, Inua Ellams has crafted this play in such a way that there is undoubtedly some familiar element that everyone in the audience can cling onto. The air of nostalgia, especially when in the setting of one of the barbershops in Africa, creates a sense of community and family that is unnervingly accurate.
With the seating surrounding the floor stage, there was no sense that you were observing the narrative from an outside perspective. From the moment I walked into the theatre space, it was clear that audience immersion was a focus of the production as audience members were invited up onto the stage before the show started. People even had to walk right across the middle of the stage to get to their seats. Having such a stripped setup allowed the audience to focus more on the dialogue and plot of the play. In it’s essence, all that occurred was a series of men going into different barbershops for a haircut. Though, through something as simple and easy as conversation, so much more happens. The use of dramatic irony to draw links between all these seemingly separate narratives was also a very surreptitious way to entice the audience. When you have those epiphanic moment and realise the links, it’s somewhat like a reward and invites you to continue building up this large, overall plot.
How twelve men so successfully portrayed thirty individual characters so distinctly still amazes me. Afro-Caribbean stereotypes were used in a way that wasn’t offensive or token, also various social issues were raised in just the right way that they didn’t take away from the main focus yet had enough presence that they weren’t merely placating. I also commend the musical scene transitions, which effectively diffused the mood of the previous scene in order to provide a fresh atmosphere for the next. It also served to keep the play grounded in its cultural origins when there is a tendency to modernise and westernise art to make it more “accessible”.
‘Barbershop Chronicles’ is a refreshing production, which encourages introspection without losing the humour and charm of theatre. It invites an audience indiscriminately as there is something that will resonate with every individual in the audience.
Photo Credit: National Theatre