WE DON’T OFTEN REVIEW TWICE, BUT THE SHORTAGE OF YOUNGER AND DIVERSE VOICES MATTERS…SO (ON HER OWN TICKET) J.N. BENJAMIN, A YOUNG LONDONER WHOSE OWN HERITAGE IS NIGERIAN, SPEAKS NOW OF THIS MARVELLOUS STUDY OF AFRICAN MANHOOD…
The thing that was, to me, most striking about Barber Shop Chronicles, was the familiarity of it all. From that specifically african sound made in the back of one’s throat (usually to express disapproval), right the way to Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother softly playing in the background, via the playful rivalry between the Black Carribbean community and the Black African community. Yes, it all felt very familiar.
And indeed the play is about family. About the surrogate families we form and come to rely on when our biological ones are – for whatever reason – unable to give us what we need. All families need a home and the home here is the humble barber shop. The set is truthfully designed by Rae Smith; the intricacies of her work create yet more familiarity. The rickety mis-matched waiting chairs – some covered in kente cloth, the hand-painted shop front signs, even the hair products on the grooming stations – blue Dax! – much reminded me of a childhood well spent hanging around on Walworth Road, in south London. For those of us who have spent long summers in tiny African villages the imposing generator in the corner was instantly recognisable.
The action takes place across London, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Joburg and Harare – and is based on often hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking real life conversations witnessed by Ellams on his visit to each.This is a novelty for me. It’s a novelty for me because I am a black and, like the writer of this play, Inua Ellams, of Nigerian heritage. The stories from our community are seldom given such prominence on the theatre stage.
Themes abound throughout the 105 minute show, but the most prominent is that of masculinity; and black masculinity, to be specific. It explores the difficulty faced by boys and young men of finding relatable and accessible role models in their local communities and how trying to compare themselves to ‘legends, titans, country sized men’ like Mandela, Martin, Malcolm and Marcus, can be overwhelming. It asks the big questions: am I still a man if I pluck my eyebrows? Will the mandem still accept me if I want to talk about my feelings? Can I claim to be a man if I don’t like pushing weights at the gym? Now, full disclosure: I am a woman. But it is because of this that I am all too aware of the damage that toxic masculinity can cause.
There are philosophically burdensome elements of this play and it sure does get emotional – Kwami Odoom’s final scene as Ethan, made my heart feel heavy; I recognised that boy in many I have known in real life – but these moments are well balanced by the razor sharp comedic performances of the cast. The thirty characters were split between twelve actors and I loved them all. Cyril Nri – whom I’ll always remember as Supt. Adam Okaro from The Bill – was the perfectly imperfect father figure Emmanuel, whose Dad Humour was a highlight. I cackled at Patrice Naiambana and his accidental flashing as Old Tokunbo, was charmed by Simon Manyonda as Tanaka The HipsterGeek and I fell in love with Winston, played by Anthony Welsh (I am sure that wink-of-the-eye was aimed in my direction). But the stand out performance for me was given by Hammed Animashaun who took on four characters but his Muhammed, a 30-something, diamante-wearing, woman-Loving, London-living Nigerian man, was particularly special. Just like in the 2Pac song, all eyez were on him as he stole the show.
It is in experiencing the highs, the lows, the tensions followed by release into the heady heights of uncontrollable snort-laughter that one comes to truly appreciate the supreme union of Ellams’ writing and Bijan Sheibani’s direction.
Of course you could not have a celebration of Mother Africa and all her ways without the inclusion of song. It is in this area kudos is due to the music director Michael Henry whose barber shop quartet style voice arrangements that swept us from city to city inspired delight. Meanwhile, the soundtrack has proved so popular with audiences there is now a Spotify playlist featuring D’Banj, Fuse ODG and Skales as well as Shakka, Giggs, Ghetts and Jme. Song is nothing without dance and movement director Aline David’s paso-doble-esque choreography was a real treat. The urge to get out of my seat and join them was almost to much to contain. Almost.
The play offers a masterclass in the myriad of ways there is to be a 21st century man. It’s an Ode to the Barber Shop, a place for talking, where many of these men are made.