New Zealand Festival: Barbershop Chronicles

Barbershop Chronicles
By Inua Ellams
Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse
TSB Bank Arena

Like the barman and the taxi driver, the barber is often regarded as the common man’s psychiatrist, counsellor, political pundit and even financial adviser. People can unburden themselves for a few minutes or a few hours, the advice given in return accepted or dismissed.

Very often the views of these public figures can even be seen as able to appraise the problems of a nation or a person. They can also be complete idiots.

Inua Ellams Barbershop Chronicles is an attempt to bring together the conversations of barbers and their clients to provide a snapshot of a group of men scattered around the African continent as well as the UK.

Basing his dialogues and monologues partly on conversations he has recorded in Accra, Lagos, Johannesburg, Kampala, Harare and London he provides insights into the lives of a range of African men.

At first the play seems to be a series of separate tales but slowly, as we revisit some of the shops, individual characters become more defined and their stories become more elaborate. In the case of the family barber shop in London we become enmeshed in an intergenerational family drama.

In the Johannesburg shop we come across some strong political views, with one barber abusing Nelson Mandela and his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has denied the people their rights to retribution and land and in Kampala the rights and wrongs of Robert Mugabe are discussed. 

The preoccupation of all the characters is with the history, the condition and the future of African people. While many of the stories and interchanges are familiar to all people of all cultures there are subtle differences.

Much of the conversation is about everyday ribald tales, local anecdotes and a running joke about Barcelona football supporters. The shifting styles of the local patois create something of a poetic landscape and at times the conversations become almost philosophical, including discussions about the need to reclaim language and the appropriate music to play in black establishments.

From the opening we are plunged into a crowded African market full of noise, music and activity, with all the performers interacting, dancing and singing and then, between each of the vignettes, the performers again stream onto the stage, keeping the energy and pace of the production alive.

This is an experience as much as a piece of theatre, an entry into another world and a new way of seeing.

As with many shows performed in the round and, especially the poorly designed TSB Arena, the sound can be swallowed up and often the language used by the performers also means we miss out on some of the nuances.