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BWW Review: BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES, National Theatre At Home

BWW Review: BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES, National Theatre At Home

BWW Review: BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES, National Theatre At Home In these days of lockdown, the barber's shop and hairdressers have become a focal point; recent social media photos are proving that haircuts are not something we should undertake ourselves. For many, these places are not just somewhere to get a trim, but to socialise, debate, moan and joke.

Filmed in January 2018, this never-before-seen screening of Inua Ellam's delightful Barber Shop Chronicles is the latest offering from The National Theatre's wonderful At Home series and is a bittersweet reminder of the social interaction and gossip that takes place when we go for a haircut.

For anyone who has been in Peckham at midnight on a Saturday, one constant sight is the ever-open barber's shops, buzzing with activity. Director Bijan Sheibani's vibrant production moves between a series of snapshots set in barber's shop in Peckham and across Africa, peeking into the lives of the men who visit over the course of a single day. The same conversations, jokes and football match all feature as we jump between shops.

The main story is set in London's Three Kings shop where Samuel, Winston and Emmanuel, the Nigerian proprietor, work and talk. Sam blames Emmanuel for what he believes is his father's unjust imprisonment after being forced out of the business.

The tension from Fisayo Akinade's Samuel is palpable and very credible. Akinade feels like a boy trying to be a man, his brave front let down by subsequent revelations about his father. Cyril Nri is an excellent Emmanuel; sensitive, apologetic and wise; a tragic insight into his personal life at the end is left tantalisingly unexplored. The cast play several characters each and are all strong, with a real sense of kinship between them.

Set in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, the production is an exploration of black masculinity, fatherhood and how a strong character can be achieved without a role model. Despite all being black men, the group that features is incredibly diverse in background, age and wealth, but all develop a strong sense of association through their conversations. The connection is the subject of family; specifically sons and often absent fathers. These are moments in time, rather than plays within the play, but a few of the conversations do not feel like they quite get to the heart of the matter.

The result is a fast-paced and insightful production featuring sparkling dialogue and debate about subjects from Nelson Mandela, slavery, absent fathers and, of course, football. There are preening show-offs, struggling actors, regretful fathers and a never-ending rota of barbers who are happy to listen.

Who all visit for a haircut, but also for advice and just a chat. The production feels like a truly authentic insight into the conversations, arguments and interactions between black men, who feel free to speak freely. There is a real sense that the barber's shops are safe spaces for the men to talk; no subject, it seems, is off limits, including apartheid debated in Johannesburg, homosexuality discussed in Kampala and the word 'nigger' explored in London.

The production feels overwhelmingly natural, with truly believable conversations and confessions. The local accents are excellent and the cadence is almost poetic (unsurprising considering Ellam's poetry-writing credentials). Michael Henry's musical direction is immersive, with traditional, harmonied singing from the cast, interspersed with energetic Western hip hop.

Aline David's movement gives great energy, as the scenes change with the cast swooping round the stage with the barber chairs and trolleys. Having the camera positions filming from every side of the square stage of the Dorfman, in among the audience, feels immersive and works very well.

This is an energetic, thoughtful and beautifully observed production, brimming with social observation and pathos.

Barber Shop Chronicles is available on The National Theatre YouTube channel until 21 May

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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