Barber Shop Chronicles: Brotherhood, Beats and Belonging
Gossiping at the hairdressers; swapping endless stories; spilling emotional truths - these are just a few of the gendered stereotypes that the all male cast burst through.
Barber Shop Chronicles explodes onto the stage with almost pantomimic levels of audience involvement. An onstage start transforms the Royal Exchange stage into a thriving dance floor. The fourth wall is utterly shattered by the infectious playful atmosphere.
Barber Shop Chronicles is presented by the Royal Exchange and Contact Theatre, who are dedicated to providing a platform for young performers. Perhaps their influence is what fuels this production with youthful exuberance by the bucketload. Indeed, this co-production stems from yet more theatre companies - Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse. I can’t help but notice how this collaboration reflects the inclusive, family dynamic found in each and every barbershop we see.
The ensemble fill the stage with larger-than-life characters, each with their own agenda for setting the world to rights. The production embraces stereotypes as celebrations of their culture. In doing so, it cuts through any semblance of ‘us and them’; we do not look on from afar, but are welcomed inside.
Demmy Ladipo and Tobi Bamtefa, in particular, see the audience fall about with explosive laughter at some of their over-the-top caricatures. Whereas Mohammed Mansaray and Anthony Ofoegbu are challenged with presenting slow-burning, recurring characters. Compared to the instantaneous characterisations conjured by their cast mates, scenes between Mansaray and Ofoegbu are ruled by mystery and unresolved tension. But, never allowing the pace to lessen, the “Three Kings Barber Shop” is a fixed point that marks the story’s tireless progression and hosts the most important debates.
Inua Ellams’ script gives us carefully interlocking scenes that form a global community. What begins as a series of comedy sketches and anecdotes sewn together, develops into a carefully crafted narrative (wherein time is universally marked by the Champions League final!). At times, comedy gives way to confrontation as the cast tackle major issues in familial conversation. Politics, family, race, culture, language and belonging - no topic is off limits.
Having said that, this production is careful to balance each conversation and avoid unwelcome didacticism. Barber Shop Chronicles is sure to make you think, but to cut the scene before the point of preaching. It is this non-judgemental, apolitical politics that nurtures such an embracing environment within the theatre.
Director, Bijan Sheibani, and Movement Director, Aline David, lead the company through seamless scene changes, powered by rousing musical interludes. Props become dance partners as the cast flood the theatre with resounding song. Their traditional, rhythmic singing is heartfelt and celebratory for the countries they transport us to. Juxtaposed with more modern dancehall beats, the show’s music spans timezones and a cross-section of cultural heritage. In doing so, it also injects an undeniable sense of fun and energy.
Ultimately, this noisy, music-fuelled fiesta culminates in a gentle moment ruminating on the expectations of a “strong black male”. Who do we look to to define masculinity? Where do we go to define ourselves? Does it really matter? Would you like to hear a joke?!
I was utterly captivated by the atmosphere that enshrouded me throughout and smiled nostalgically at each comedy refrain. Indeed I couldn’t help but leave the theatre feeling upbeat. With touching moments dispersed amongst raucous banter, Barber Shop Chronicles is a play of all times and places. It is at once a powerful mouthpiece for unheard voices and a carefree evening amongst friends.
Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 7-23 March as part of a UK tour. Visit the Royal Exchange website for tickets and more information.