Review: Barber Shop Chronicles, National Theatre

If you want to enjoy yourself from sitting in the audience as much as the actors do in the space, Barber Shop Chronicles is the show for you. If you are wanting to witness incredibly talented actors create a phenomenal production, Barber Shop Chronicles is also the show for you. Upon entering the space of Inua Ellams’ vibrant piece, the public are greeted by the actors, and invited to take a seat in one of the barber chairs, as another actor plays DJ and spins popular dance songs by black artists, such as Beenie Man and Skepta, which gets people dancing and joking with the actors. The atmosphere is emulating that of an African barber shop, where the visitors are there to socialise as much as they are for a shape up.

The whole company brings this diverse world to life, with multi rolling taking us to barber shops all around the world. Patrice Naiambana as the elderly Tokunbo kicks off our story and becomes unrecognisable later on as the hilariously flamboyant and proud Paul. Hammed Animashaun bounces from an eager young interviewee to a swaggering man of confidence with ease. I could list the talents of each actor in detail, but I shall just say that it is a pleasure to follow these characters on their journeys, and it will stay with me for a long time to come. These actors skillfully portray larger than life characters and, directed by Bijan Sheibani, still make them authentic.

The Dorfman’s stage being in the round makes it inclusive of the audience, and Rae Smith’s set design, with barber shop fronts hung around the edges of the space, further portrays the idea that these goings ons happen all over the world. The centre piece, though, is the wire globe that is hung above the actors, which rotates during the transition of scenes, signifying the difference in location, and this is supported by the actors’ singing the country’s name as they set the scene. The style in which they sing is that of traditional call and response, mixed in with contemporary songs, as the actors dance and move in unison, and one sequence is met with roaring audience applause.

In this important play, topics such as racism, masculinity, parenting, the evolution of language and the use of the n- word are discussed, showing us just how precious these relationships men have with their barbers are. As the lights go down, the whole theatre leaps out of their seats for a standing ovation, and once the music starts, people join the actors and dance freely. It is an amazing thing to witness, as the audience members are also so diverse. This just goes to show that this is the kind of theatre that we want, and more importantly, need.

Barber Shop Chronicles is playing at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until July 8.

Photo: Marc Brenner