The Barbershop Chronicles is an exultant and unapologetic production.
This production is about black experience; it showcases black stories for the black people watching and it doesn’t apologise for that, nor should it. A white audience member will find much to enjoy and admire – the whip-sharp dialogue, the laugh-out-loud gags, the excellent delivery – but The Barber Shop Chronicles wasn’t written for them. In English theatre, this makes Inua Ellam’s script unusual; to see it on the Dorfman stage of the National Theatre is almost unprecedented. But this is exactly the sort of the production that we need to see commissioned and championed by our theatres. The lives depicted in The Barber Shop Chronicles aren’t extraordinary, but they are often untold. In other productions, these characters might be marginalised at best and parodied at worst. To see them acknowledged and celebrated in one of Europe’s best-known theatres is exciting but also entirely right.
The production goes out of its way to be inclusive and immersive. The audience is made to feel like they are in on the action, sat on one of the chairs waiting for their fade. In the time it takes to walk across the set to find your seat you might be ushered over to a barber’s chair, greeted like an old friend or asked how you want your hair cutting. There is a jubilant atmosphere – everyone is mingling, chatting and dancing to the radio and as a result it feels personal and intimate from the outset.
Bijan Sheibani’s direction is smart, but consciously unslick. Scene changes are semi-chaotic; the actors wheel chairs around the stage, break into choreographed dance and sing in harmony. There is always the faint noise of a top-ten tune from 2008 playing tinnily in the background and characters talk over one another, shouting to be heard. The relationships between men in the play are exquisitely drawn and beautifully realised by the cast. There is warmth, humour and humanity throughout. Matters of both international and personal importance are discussed, but also withheld. Williams is excellent at playing with low and high rhetoric; one moment the characters are jovially mocking Winston about his girlfriend and the next scene might shift to a monologue about Mandela and his betrayal black South Africans. Presuppositions and audience expectations are challenged at every turn.
Perhaps only in the final scene does the writing threaten to become trite. When Ethan, a young black British actor, comes to the shop for a haircut before an audition, the dialogue turns to black masculinity and the different models for exploring it. The message has, however, been made by this point. There are many ways of being black, being male and being displaced, all of which are equally legitimate. The play ends on a jarringly sincere note, an earnestness which feels at odds with the rest of the dialogue. But this is a small scruple.
The Barbershop Chronicles is an exultant and unapologetic production. It is smart, thoughtful and uplifting. Never have I seen such a diverse audience at a London theatre; which surely means that the creative team behind this production achieved what they set out to do. I have no doubt that the success of this run will ensure that other minority ethnic voices find it easier in the future to find a platform and have their voices heard.