Barbershop Chronicles - A Cut Above
Phil Hopkins, Theatre & Travel Correspondent
To understand the Barbershop Chronicles you must first appreciate the role of the barber in African society as well as the play's creator, Nigerian born Inua Ellams.
The two represent a symbiotic relationship where neither can exist without the other, and this interdependency has resulted in a widely acclaimed production that arrives at the West Yorkshire Playhouse via Fuel and the National Theatre, companies equally famed for producing world-class contemporary performances.
Crammed full of wonderful humour, politics and political (in)correctness, the Barbershop Chronicles spans continents, taking you on a two-hour journey into barbershops across the world - London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, as African men contemplate the role the man behind the chair plays in their lives.
Initially, the most striking facet of the West Yorkshire staging is the transformation of the Courtyard Theatre into an in-the-round seating layout, which has visual advantages as well as aural disadvantages, especially when you add in a layer of complexity that is Nigerian Pidgin English.
Visually the staging is superb, seeking to emulate many of the African street barbers where men have a haircut but stick around to chew the fat for hours after the final snip, or to help out when the generator powering the single shop lightbulb conks out!
However, as each of the different barbers came to life around the central stage area, what was a wonderful visual experience also became the Achilles heel in terms of catching the humour if you happened to be looking at someone's back when a heavily accented punch line was delivered. I wanted to shout, 'will you repeat that, I got the beginning bit!'
All said, I did love the show and desperately wanted to hear every line because I realised that it was a well-crafted script rooted in knowledge, understanding and political dexterity, based either on personal experience or handed down knowledge from a family elder.
There was the barbershop feud where the son of an incarcerated man blames dad's business partner for his father's imprisonment, only to discover that dad was the victim of his own thieving.
To another man the barber was the unofficial counsellor and mental health nurse talking to the embittered customer whose son was a famous actor in London, whilst he had fallen into alcoholism, eaten away by so many things in life including a feeling that black men had not been delivered true retribution by history.
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This is a fascinating play and it is little surprise that it has already found an extended life outside the West Yorkshire Playhouse, however, for Yorkshire audiences it will be challenging in that the Pidgin English is, at times, hard to understand, a fact, not a criticism, and an appreciation of the political machinations of Nigeria and Africa's wider geo-political line up will enhance your appreciation.
It is a play you could see more than once and, each time, you will learn something about life and yourself.
At the outset I thought it might be something akin to a John Godber play, full of laughs from the barbershop chair, but that would be to do a disservice to Inua Ellams.
This is a perceptive script and the Barbershop Chronicles is simultaneously funny but deep, brutal but kind and full of empathy. It is challenging of concentration but a fight worth engaging with and, if you have white skin, take care, it will make you think!
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Until July 29th
Barbershop Chronicles - A Cut Above, 13th July 2017, 15:41 PM