Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Monday 11th March, 2019
Trips to the hairdressers: a polite smile; the unnecessary hand gestures to accompany the verbal request; banal chat about how cold it’s been, how work’s been hectic, what it is you actually do for a living; the inevitable dying of the conversation, the awkward misery of not having anything else to say.
Barber Shop Chronicles tells the tale of just one day in the life of six such businesses separated by thousands of miles – and the proceedings are anything but dull and mundane.
Scenes switch at a frantic pace as the setting jumps seemingly randomly between locations in London, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda – the places may vary but the customers’ demands do not, it soon becomes clear that African men in a barber’s shop seek much, much more than just a haircut.
In a show lasting just under two hours, more than a dozen individual sketches are played out, each one packed full of outrageous characters and hilarious jokes. In most cases the barbers themselves tend to slowly disappear into the background as the flamboyant customers turn what begins as idle chit-chat into a much-needed chance to let off some serious steam.
The action comes thick and fast: a rude and aggressive 6am plea for a haircut before a big job interview; a furious accusation of professional negligence leading to the scourge of ingrown hairs; even a bizarre appeal for justice in the mysterious case of a gay neighbour stealing a cow.
Theatrically, what would otherwise have been a series of independent (though thoroughly entertaining) sketches are actually held together very cleverly by a collection of common threads which work to weave a coherent story-telling experience.
Firstly, the staff and customers of each business seem to be completely obsessed with a Chelsea v Barcelona football match – Chelsea apparently being all of Africa’s team of choice since the Big Chief Ferguson left Man United.
And every customer – young and old – is desperately obsessed with the elusive search for a perfect haircut. The exact definition of a perfect haircut doesn’t seem to be particularly clear, other than through knowledgeable nods and agreeable groans when the mirror is finally held up at the end of proceedings.
But even deeper still are the common themes that run through the various stories being told. A strong sense of dissonance emerges when conversations turn to fathers and fatherhood – it becomes rather telling that no matter which question is posed, it just never seems to get answered.
What is really striking though is the sense that, though each man can literally have his hair trimmed and styled into whatever idealised form he seeks, the full definition of what it is to be a man and become a man – a black African man – seems to remain frustratingly out of reach.
Barber Shop Chronicles is such a joyous and uplifting production built upon a genuinely hysterical set of characters who dance and sing their way through a day in the life of six small businesses that seem to provide more than just hairdressing services.
In these barber shops it seems that anything is possible, any problem can be solved, any topic can be tackled, any philosophy can be debated – but first there has to be a decent haircut.
Photography: Marc Brenner
|Visual pleasure||Beautifully presented in the round at the Royal Exchange, the giant spinning globe hung from above with each respective country lit up as the actions switched from place to place was particularly impressive. Scene changes literally became a bewildering game of musical chairs on stage, which cleverly linked the sketches together into a coherent performance.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||Packed full of toe-tapping Afro-beats and hip-hop, even an appearance from Skepta. Each scene change was accompanied by hypnotic chanting in a range of African languages. It was basically impossible to not jig around to the music.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||Incredible piece of writing to take so many separate sketches and tie them together with common themes, and even common props. The use of an ongoing mystery in the London shop really helped to insinuate from an early point that this was all heading for a dramatic conclusion.||4|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding performances with most actors playing multiple roles. Every single character being portrayed carried his own identity, charm and wit, when put together it came across so well and they all seemed so believable.||5|
|Overall impact||An outstanding evening of entertainment casting an intriguing light on how a seemingly ordinary business function serves such an extraordinary purpose. Feels like a new world has been revealed, one which was in plain sight the whole time.||5|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|