The Roundhouse, Camden – Barber Shop Chronicles:
A night out at London’s Roundhouse is always out of the ordinary. With a history as a music and theatre venue, the performances I have attended in the past have all been memorable.
Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles premiered at the National Theatre in 2017, after which it toured to the US. It now returns to the Roundhouse in London before touring across the UK.
The scene is set before even entering the theatre. In the bar is a pop-up from Let’s Chop restaurant serving jollof rice and burritos. Other restaurants will operate during the course of the run. From Thursdays to Saturday throughout the run, a pop-up barber shop will also operate. Mark (SliderCuts) Maciver has clients and followers including Stormzy, Anthony Joshua, LeBron James and Reggie Yates.
Entering the large round auditorium we found the space decorated with large, painted boards advertising barber shops. There was ‘Haircut: Chizkop Brush 5-Curl’ from South Africa, ‘Abrams Gents Salon Hair Cut’ from Accra, ‘Kowope Barber Shop Lagos Finest’ and others from the cities the play visits.
Music was pounding and soon a DJ took to the stage while the audience began to mingle with the cast who appeared about 15 minutes before the official start. In the centre of the round stage were two sofas and three barber chairs. An assortment of shaving brushes, clippers and other barber paraphernalia stood ready in metal trays.
The atmosphere was joyous, people danced and drank, greeted and hugged one another and members of the cast. There was a lot of genuine warmth going around. I couldn’t imagine how the stage would ever be cleared for the performance.
Barber Shop Chronicles, directed by Bijan Sheibani, presents a series of scenes in different countries – all set in barber shops – with each actor playing a number of roles. Scene changes were introduced with singing and dancing pertaining to the country about to be featured. This was very physical theatre and the cast sang and danced, acted and entertained in equal measure.
The action began in Lagos and zigzagged across Africa to Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and frequently returned to London. The unfolding dramas in each barber shop took place on the same day, linked by each group watching the cup final match between Barcelona and Chelsea. In each setting the same joke was told, adjusting for cultural references but maintaining its universal humour.
As customers took their seats in the barber’s chair conversations ranged from black male identity, father and son relations, methods of child-rearing, discipline, violence and abuse, betrayal and abandonment. On a political level, the governments of the day and the colonial history of each country were discussed and argued over.
In addition to the country-specific themes, in the London barber shop, there was a poignant story that unfolded throughout the play reaching its moving and cathartic end in the final scene, tying together many of the narratives set in the other countries.
Barber Shop Chronicles is both philosophical and deeply psychological. The playwright first had the idea for a play when he read a pamphlet advertising counselling training for barbers. His research took him to all the countries featured in the play where he taped conversations in barber shops, returning with 60 hours of material. This he whittled down to 105 minutes.
The conversations are at times painful to listen in on especially when dealing with the subject of violence meted out by fathers to their sons. ‘We didn’t call it abuse so it wasn’t’, observes one character. Arguments break out about the use of racist terminology and whether it is ever possible to reclaim and use such terms in a non-derogatory way. The political arguments are particularly sobering to watch – land seizures in Zimbabwe, with one character defending Mugabe – while back in South Africa there is a diatribe against Mandela having failed black people by not holding anyone accountable for Apartheid. An alcoholic and broken man – betrayed by his own father – bitterly rages about the emasculation of generations of South African men and chillingly argues that the night of the long knives will still come when white people are slaughtered in retribution.
The play movingly deals with recurring themes of male vulnerability. While men may find these topics more difficult to discuss than the football score or sexual conquests, the barber chair is akin to a therapeutic space. As one character observes, ‘even in dark times the barber shop is a lighthouse, a beacon for the community’.
An all-male cast of twelve actors all provided consistently strong performances whether acting, dancing or singing. The play kept up a dynamic and vibrant pace, the staging was excellent and was used to great effect by an enormously energetic cast. At times the script lagged a bit, but mostly the dialogue was funny, poignant, moving and chilling. The audience loved the production and rose to its feet as the cast performed the dance finale.
While Barber Shop Chronicles is entertainment with bells on, the underlying concerns are serious. An excellent essay in the programme, written by Baffour Ababio, a Psychoanalytic Intercultural Psychotherapist, explores the effects of ‘the stress of racism, migration, vestiges of the colonial experience, the fragmentation of communities and the processes black men experience in the mental health system’. Black men are over-represented in psychiatric hospitals in the UK as well as being over-represented in being diagnosed with schizophrenia. This creates both suffering and mistrust of mental health professionals. Ababio suggests that psychotherapists and barbers might well form a collaborative relationship, with barbers being trained to identify signs and symptoms of mental illness. While Barber Shop Chronicles does not shy away from emotional pain, alcoholism and loss, it also presents the possibility of healing and redemption through human contact, the act of speaking and being heard that takes place in the barber’s chair.
Barber Shop Chronicles runs at the Roundhouse until 24 August. It then tours Birmingham, Oxford, Inverness, Edinburgh, Southampton and Leeds.
Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8EH
Also showing at the Troubadour, London White City, is the National Theatre’s production of Peter Pan – Do check out this much loved production at a new venue