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BWW Review: BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES, National Theatre

As eavesdropping opportunities go, the barber shop has everything a playwright could desire: a constant stream of close encounters and a broad range of people willing to sit still and talk. That talk feeds directly into Inua Ellams' new play for the National, which follows a day in the life of male grooming parlours across six world cities: London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra.

For generations, African men have gathered in such salons to exchange news, talk family, football and religion, or just stand around and chill. Ellams' special interest, though, is the growing crisis in black men's perception of their own masculinity, and his play identifies the barbershop as a necessary safe space for a rough kind of counselling.

The strength of Ellams' script is that on the surface it plays like the better kind of sitcom, serious undercurrents registering by stealth. At first the laughs come thick and fast, though the accents and dialects of the six locations can be an obstacle. On opening night it was noticeable how much more quickly black audience members responded to the humour: it's not just that they found the jokes funnier, they caught all the words.

The four-sides-of-a-square staging doesn't help audibility. Despite calculated use of swivel chairs, some of the actors need to speak up. Atmospherically, though, Rae Smith's design - a sprawl of salon furniture whose shabbiness level responds to each change of city - is fun and involving. At the start, audience members are encouraged to take the chair for a (pretend) trim and spruce-up, which nicely blurs the boundaries.

On other crucial levels, however, Bijan Sheibani's lively production falls down. It might have seemed a bright idea to suspend a large central light fitting in the form of a globe, continents lighting up to signal each new location. But some of the time it seemed to be on the blink.

In a similar spirit of helpfulness, lighted barbershop facades hung behind the audience seating indicate the establishment being visited, but with our gaze trained on the action, some of us missed that information until it was too late to matter.

And then there is the problem of identifying 30 characters shared between a dozen actors. For all the excellent dialect coaching, it is near impossible to remember who's who and where is where. Even so, it's hard not to be moved by the play's sheer emotional range.

Topics covered in surprising depth include absent fathers, parental discipline, pride in work, assimilation and the loss of national distinctiveness, the psychological legacy of slavery... It's big, important stuff, delivered with both passion and finesse and only the occasional longueur. The song-and-dance scene changes are a total delight.

Barber Shop Chronicles runs until July 8 at the National Theatre, then moves to West Yorkshire Playhouse 12-29 July

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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